At the heart of reality lies weirdness. And no, this is not some alcohol-induced philosophical musing, it’s science.
Particles can travel forwards and backwards in time, they can exist in two places at once or don’t even “exist” at all unless you take a measurement, a cat can be both dead and alive (or neither) until you look, and there’s that pesky phenomenon where light can be either a particle or a wave, depen-ding on how you set up your experiment.
In the late 19th century, German physicist and mathematician Philipp von Jolly apparently told his student Max Planck, “In this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes”.
He couldn’t have been more wrong, but who could blame him?
After all, the classical physics given birth by Isaac Newton had ruled the world of science for centuries, backed by experiments and irrefutable laws.
The classical model certainly worked for the macroscopic world, but things broke down when you delved into the microscopic world.
In 1900, Planck, in investigating ultraviolet radiation from a “black body” – a hypothetical object that perfectly absorbed and radiated energy – could not explain it using classical physics.
In what he called “an act of desperation”, he suggested that energy comes in discrete packages that he labelled “quanta”.
Planck’s “act of desperation” would create a whole new field of physics, leading to a whole new set of philosophical conundrums.
Welcome to The Quantum World.
New Scientist, still one of the best “popular science” magazines around, catering to everyone from the informed layman to actual scientists, attempts to shed some light on all this with its “Instant Expert” series.
The Quantum World is based on a series of New Scientist “masterclass” talks, articles previously published in the magazine, and some specially commissioned original content, from a whole host of writers and academics.
There are some minor typos (for example, “the macroscopic world of electronics and atoms”) but no deal-breakers.
What the book does well is to give a quick overview of the history of quantum physics, some of the thorniest issues surrounding it, the various theories attempting to explain it, right up to the latest experiments (as recently as January 2017) which have either proven some aspect or thrown a spanner into the works and given scientists new areas to explore and new ideas to think about.
Quantum physics is so counter-intuitive that even Albert Einstein had difficulty accepting it, and Niels Bohr himself said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it”.
There are many mysteries yet to be solved, such as why two particles at the opposite ends of the universe can become “entangled” and affect each other instantaneously, why measuring one factor of a particle (for example, its spin) means you cannot determine another (its position), and so on.
But what fascinating outlooks, from the “shut up and calculate” of Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation (we don’t need to understand it, just make use of it) and the “hidden reality” (we haven’t gained the perspective to view it in its whole), to reality-as-information and the many-worlds theory that has tickled the imagination of many a science fiction writer.
It’s not all “theory” either. The Quantum World also gives a rundown of how quantum physics is being put to use in various fields such as computing, cryptography and even biology.
If the concepts and ideas start to become a bit overwhelming, the little sidebars, titbits, anecdotes and even quantum physics jokes will keep you going. You don’t need any science background to enjoy them.
For example, there are many photographs from various archives, and one is of the famous Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927, where the foremost scientists and thinkers of the time met to lay down the law – in the non-scientific sense – of quantum physics.
Of the 29 people in that picture, 17 would go on to be awarded Nobel prizes. The only woman in the photograph, Marie Curie, would go on to win two.
Then there is the story of troubled physicist Hugh Everett, who first proposed the many-worlds theory that found no traction while he was alive. He became withdrawn and bitter.
His son Mark Everett speaks about the strange relationship his sister and he had with their father. His mother became mentally unstable, and his sister committed suicide.
Mark would go on to form the rock band Eels, and it’s no wonder that their first hit single was a song called Novocaine For The Soul.
But when all is said and done, The Quantum World is a bit of a hit-and-miss, depending on how informed a layman you are. If this is your first foray into quantum physics, you may struggle through some of its givens. This is not a great introductory book.
The good thing is that this is the 21st century, so you have the Internet to fall back on, and there is also a recommended reading list, with two books better suited if this is your first time.
One is The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav, 1979) which first brought the concept to mainstream attention, relatively speaking – and no, that’s not an Einstein allusion.
The other is The Tao Of Physics: An Exploration Of The Parallels Between Modern Physics And Eastern Mysticism (Fritjof Capra, 1975), which does an even better job of explaining quantum physics to a complete novice … if you can stomach the mysticism bits, that is.
Not that the writing in The Quantum World is dry and academic, either. New Scientist has some of the best science writers around, able to explain things simply, and there are some thought-provoking passages here that are more than mere soundbites, they’re essential truths.
But no less emotive for that: “We live in a quantum universe. Look closely, and you will find that we are all entangled waves of complex probability.”
Lines like that are enough to drive me to get the other books in the “Instant Expert” series.
The Quantum World: The Disturbing Theory At The Heart Of Reality
Editor: Alison George
Publisher: John Murray Learning/New Scientist Instant Expert series