Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Friday, 19 November 2010
'Like a good novel, this kept me gripped to the very end thanks to a perfect balance between hard science and human interest. The first thing you notice about the book is the detail. Copiously researched, Kumar has pulled together a truly impressive array of material, both personal and professional, constructing a rich history that transports you to the subject's golden age and to the lives of the key players. He tells a story so engrossing and so detailed that I felt surprisingly moved towards the end. Yes, by a book on quantum theory.
In terms of the science, there are some first-class explanations from blackbody radiation and the photoelectric effect through to EPR and Bell's Theorem, with 30+ pages of end notes. Although the history is structured around the debate between Einstein and Bohr, other key players are afforded considerable coverage - not just the obvious ones like Planck, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, de Broglie and Born, but also (and to his credit) some of the lesser known figures - Sommerfeld, Uhlenbeck, Compton - whose crucial contributions to the field frequently go unmentioned in books and articles on this subject.
The great debate itself is a tremendously invigorating one. Both Einstein and Bohr agreed that quantum mechanics was correct. Where they disagreed was in whether or not it was complete. In fact the implications of this disagreement went deeper, calling into question the fundamental role of physics itself, and whether there is even such a thing to be measured as an independent objective reality. On this, the author's background in physics and philosophy are put to good use. Overall then, this is a captivating fusion of science, history, philosophy and biography, and a great way to feed the heart and the brain.'
Monday, 8 November 2010
Sunday, 5 September 2010
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics," claimed Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1965, some 10 years after Albert Einstein's death. Not even the great father of atomic science himself could have risen to the challenge of sorting out atomic physics just after completing his theses on relativity. "I thought a hundred times as much about the quantum problems as I have about general relativity problems," said Einstein, in the late 1930s. The quantum literally became Einstein's demon.
But wait a minute–now comes a thick new book that purports to cover all you need to know on the thorny subject of quantum mechanics. The book is Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, by Manjit Kumar. Warning: This book may be dangerous to your health. I almost could not put this book down–I began missing meals and ignoring family member needs.
For once, here is a well-written and highly informative book on a difficult subject. Over the years, I have examined several books by leading authors in this field, but this is the only one that lives up to its title. By reading this book, you may find that you have developed an informed layman's view of quantum mechanics. The book reads more like a novel than a beginning textbook for vigorous demos of proofs.
The book differs from conventional biographies in that it uses a timeline from the days of the pioneers (J.J. Thomson of Britain, Max Planck of Germany, etc.) to contemporary scientists (Anthony Leggett, Richard Feynman, etc.). So what you are reading seems to be a series of essays about Max Planck and the "gang of nine." In rough historical order, the list looks like this: Planck, Rutherford, Pauli, Heisenberger, Bohr, Schrodinger, Einstein, Dirac, Marie Curie, and Bragg. Some list!
Before you read this book, I recommend that you take close look at the first of the B&W photos in the middle of the book. This is a splendid group photo taken at the fifth Solway conference, in October 1927. The two dozen attendees comprise all the key researchers in the field plus a few observers sent to keep their professors abreast of new developments. The assembled brain power is staggering! These meetings were sponsored by Ernst Solvay, a Belgian industrialist who made a fortune from the manufacture of sodium carbonate.
Such "quantum summit meetings" were key conferences for the leading scientists of that time. But there were many larger formal meetings held in London, Berlin, Copenhagen, and other major cities. For example, it was not unusual to have a thousand attendees at the London meetings of the distinguished British Royal Society.
Often the meetings were also supported by leading celebrities of the day. For example, in 1930, the playwright George Bernard Shaw was the master of ceremonies for a lavish fund-raising event at the plush Savoy Hotel in London. Einstein was the guest of honor. Shaw wittily commented that, given the intellectual firepower in the room, "I had to talk about Ptolemy and Aristotle, Kepler and Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, gravitation, and relativity and modern astrophysics, and heaven knows what…"
Shaw then summarized the current state of play as "Ptolemy made a universe which lasted 1,400 years. Then Newton also made a universe which lasted 300 years. Einstein has made a universe and I can't tell you how long that will last." Einstein laughed as loudly as anyone at Shaw's witticisms.
Kumar deftly interposes the developments in quantum physics with the rarely described personal lives of the major players. This combination of the scholarly work with the personal events is rarely attempted with physicists, but Kumar succeeds where others have failed miserably. His sweep is both broad and narrow with surprising success.
Thursday, 2 September 2010
'If thinking about the quantum theory doesn't make you schwindlig (dizzy), then you haven't understood it, Niels Bohr, its great patriarch, famously (well, famously among physicists) remarked. Quantum mechanics lies at the subatomic base of physical reality — and ruptures any attempts to visualize it. This doesn't worry many physicists, who use quantum mechanics to correctly calculate the behavior and attributes of the stupefyingly small and choose to disregard its weirdness. It certainly doesn't worry most nonphysicists; we go about our lives anyway, heedless of the Problem. It worried Albert Einstein profoundly until the day he died. Are you smarter than Einstein?
The British science writer Manjit Kumar has written an intellectual history of the upending, in the 1920s, of classical, Newtonian physics, whose descriptions of an objective, causal reality coincide with our intuition. But quantum theory is counterintuitive. It tells us that a subatomic particle — an electron, say — is in no particular place until it is observed. (Since you cannot see an electron, "observed" here means determining its position experimentally.) It tells us that if you want to know how fast the electron is traveling, then you will have to give up knowing just where it is. It tells us, even, that an electron can be in two places at the same time. The same electron. The various predictions that quantum theory makes have been confirmed in countless experiments.
I recall having all this explained to me in the mid-1960s, over a three-hour lunch in an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, by a frightened science journalist who had just learned that the bit about finding an electron in two places at once had been confirmed by the so-called double-slit experiment. Suffice to say that contemplating this made me and my lunch partner so schwindlig that by the last half-hour neither one of us was sure that the other was actually there. What Bohr might also have said is that once you grasp, however dimly, the implications of quantum theory, your life will never be the same.
This is a very good and thorough history of the quantum revolution, which is not to say that it's a particularly easy read. Unlike many books about physics for laymen, there are no equations in it — except for a couple of "simple" ones about an inch long describing the uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg's discovery that you cannot simultaneously determine the position and momentum of a subatomic particle. But the ideas are difficult, as you might expect from the book's subtitle, heralding "the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality."
The principals in this great debate are Bohr, whose physics institute championed the counterintuitive "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum physics, and Einstein, who objected to Bohr's "renunciation of the representation of a reality ... independent of observation." Einstein believed, to put it simply, that an electron exists — and exists in a particular place — regardless of whether it is being observed. Bohr, and his disciple Heisenberg, believed that "until an observation or measurement is made, a microphysical object like an electron does not exist anywhere," and that "it was no longer possible to make the separation that existed in classical physics between the observer and the observed."
Kumar leads the reader as carefully as he can through the thicket of permutations that led to the completion of the theory and its eventual experimental confirmation (although his description of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, a vain attempt to dethrone it, may make you feel as if you're meeting yourself coming and going). He leavens the mind-bending with sketches of the remarkable human beings involved in this godlike enterprise. Among them: Max Planck, the "reluctant revolutionary" who discovered and named the quantum in 1900, when he was "forced to accept" his own data showing that radiation is emitted and absorbed in packets. The insouciant Heisenberg, young enough to be able to turn his back on classical concepts with no regrets. Erwin Schrödinger, 14 years older, who invented a rival mechanics while vacationing with his mistress in the Alps and refused to accept nature's fundamental discontinuity — even to the point of collapsing on a visit to the Bohrs after a marathon debate with his host ("Bohr sat on the edge of the bed and continued the argument" ). And the acerbic Wolfgang Pauli, nicknamed "The Wrath of God," whose intelligence scared people and who read Einstein's papers on general relativity under his desk in high school "when bored by a particularly tedious lesson."
Pauli is said to have rocked back and forth while he was thinking hard. You might try this on your way through Kumar's book. It's a wonderful trip and one you should embark on if you're interested in just what exactly is at the bottom of the garden.'
Monday, 2 August 2010
'Something deeply hidden had to be behind things,” Albert Einstein thought as a child, thereby expressing the human need and compulsion to see through, behind and beyond the world that we inhabit in order to discover religious truths, scientific laws or cosmic visions.
In this clearly written and understandable analysis of quantum theory, the major discovery of 20th-century physics, Manjit Kumar, who has degrees in both philosophy and physics and is the author of “Science and the Retreat from Reason,” tackles an epic task and interweaves his chronological saga with biographies and backgrounds of all the major physicists who were involved — from Einstein, the “Pope,” to Niels Bohr, the Danish “King,” from Paul Dirac’s silences to Wolfgang Pauli’s sarcastic asides, from French princes to German professors, laboratories and “thought experiments” to the quantum leaps of physicists from the major universities and institutes in Munich, Gottingen, Copenhagen and Berlin.
When Max Planck in 1900 discovered the quantum, “the indivisible packet of energy,” as well as matter, he was unaware that he had destroyed centuries of Newton’s mechanical, deterministic and materialistic vision of the cosmos, undermining notions of gravity and clearly defined orbits.
In 1905, Einstein discovered that light was a particle, made up of quanta, and thus upended the century-long belief in light as a wave, though Newton had thought in terms of particles of light as well. Einstein went on to conjure up relativity, in which matter and energy, forever separate before 1905, became interchangeable, limited only, as in all things, by the speed of light.
Kumar makes the fifth Solvay conference in Brussels in October 1927 the centerpiece of this fascinating, intriguing tale of speculations made and shattered, friendships formed and strained, lavish correspondences that exploded and collapsed, and the heady rush to publish papers in leading journals in order to stake out the latest possible theory and reveal yourself on the cutting edge of the new, confounding vision of the subatomic world.
Politics also intervenes, with the Nazis condemning “Jewish physics” and the flight into exile of many German scientists. At that conference, Einstein and Bohr squared off in terms of what all the quantum mechanics, matrices and wave equations meant, wrestling with one another’s theories in terms not of animosity but of camaraderie.
Bohr had decided that everything was both a particle and a wave — the central conundrum of quantum theory — mutually exclusive but necessary. However, one could measure the radioactive traces of electrons and photons on photographic screens only as particles or waves, never simultaneously. Because he believed that the act of measurement always interferes with and disturbs what we are seeing, we can only see snapshots of the quantum realm. “An unobserved electron does not exist,” he declared. Uncertainty, discontinuity, chance and accident govern all things. Only statistical probabilities worked.
Einstein, on the other hand, believed that the subatomic realm exists independent of human observation. Quantum theory had proved itself, but it was incomplete, and that possibility of incompleteness has dominated the study of physics ever since. How does measurement interfere? Is there a border between the quantum realm and our own?
Kumar has done a splendid job of explaining complex theories and describing the people involved with discovering them, mired in cultural and historical upheavals that haunted all of them. This is a necessary, mesmerizing and meticulous volume.'
‘I just finished "Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality", by Manjit Kumar.
It's one of the best pop-science books I've ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The book describes the history of quantum mechanics, notably the first three decades of the 20th century, and all the major characters involved - physics, biographic info and European history are intertwined into a real page-turner. It's absolutely fascinating to see how Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Rutherford, De Broglie, Born, Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrodinger constantly inspired each other in their obsession to understand atoms and radiation.
The central part is the Great Debate between Einstein and Bohr about the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, the relation between physics and reality, and Bell's theorem to test the completeness of the theory. I must say, this book shows Einstein's views of QM in a way I knew little of. Often, Einstein is depicted as a relic who couldn't keep up with the latest physics and never really 'got' QM. But in reality he knew damn well what he was doing (and he convinced Schrodinger, who came up with his cat thought experiment). The standard interpretation of Bohr has dominated the teaching of QM ever since, but this book asks the question whether this domination is really justified. It might be time for a new revolution in physics...
'This book is a gem, a history of quantum mechanics, not just about Einstein and Bohr, but about those other giants of physics and their discoveries - Planck's original accidental discovery of the quantum, Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus, de Broglie's wave-particle duality, Pauli's exclusion principle, Heisenberg's uncertaintly principle, and Schrödinger's wave equation (and infamous cat). More than this, Kumar's book brings those Nobel prize-winning scientists to life - Heisenberg's rivalry with Schrödinger, Pauli, the sharp-witted Austrian who rarely surfaced before noon, de Broglie, both a German prince and a French duke and the quiet Englishman Dirac, bullied by his overbearing father.
Having brought you up to speed on the nature of quantum mechanics, lucidly explaining both the experimental evidence and the thought experiments beloved of Einstein, the author then hits you with the real argument, the interpretation of quantum mechanics: What does it really mean? What is the nature of reality? In the 'observer-independent reality, quantum theory is incomplete ' corner was Einstein, whereas Bohr and the majority of quantum physicists at the time were very much in the 'probablistic, observer-dependent reality' corner - Einstein's famous argument that 'God does not play dice with the Universe' countered by Bohr's response of 'But still, it cannot be for us to tell God, how he is to run the world.' And still the debate continues.
Manjit Kumar's book explains the science and the arguments beautifully-clearly and fairly. Highly recommended to anyone who likes science history and essential reading for anyone who is studying any kind of science. The kind of book that really does make you feel slightly more intelligent after you've read it, for a few weeks, anyway, until you forget Pauli's exclusion principle (no two electrons in an atom can occupy the same quantum state), de Broglie's equation linking wavelength and momentum gradually fades, Planck's constant, h, draws a blank and all you're left remembering is Schrödinger's cat, his famous thought experiment about a cat in a box, whose fate is determined by random radioactive decay of an atom.'
WHEN RESEARCH MAKES QUANTUM DEVELOPMENT SENSE
The call this week by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive, for a sweeping review of the UK’s £4bn-a-year science budget to emphasise projects with the potential to bring short-term industrial benefits, has sparked a fury amongst scientists. (See ‘Common room clashes with boardroom on science budget’, Financial Times. This is precisely what we warned against in the Big Potatoes Manifesto where we argue in principle 4 ‘For Useless Research’ that research remains the bedrock upon which the flow of innovation ultimately depends – a bedrock that is increasingly being questioned and undermined in our short-termist recessionary times.
Lord Browne’s instrumentalism certainly makes re-stressing this point timely and urgent. But the correctness of this fundamental research proposition was forcibly driven home to me during my recent holiday when I had the luxury and sheer delight of reading Manjit Kumar’s tour de force Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality .
This is an absolute must for all those supporters of Big Potatoes. It describes in a remarkably entertaining and accessible fashion, the history of science’s fundamental revolution – quantum physics and mechanics – and the remarkable intellectual battle between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and other brilliant young scientists who were at the heart of this inspiring story.
More importantly, it reveals some critical insights into the processes and interactions that led to a scientific revolution which gave rise to the innovations we now take for granted: the transistor, the computer, the World Wide Web, the communications revolution.
Kumar shows that when these great physicists formulated quantum mechanics from 1900 to 1930, they were trying to understand the fundamental laws of the universe, not invent something of great economic importance. Their quest was the sheer beauty of solving some of the most baffling and abstract theoretical questions. The implications of their quest were so far-reaching it impacted almost everything, transforming sister disciplines like chemistry, for example. Today, all chemists and material scientists are trained extensively in quantum mechanics. Biologists like Francis Crick, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of DNA, realized many years ago that the laws of physics and quantum mechanics ultimately govern even biology.
Quantum mechanics is necessary to engineer solid-state devices such as transistors, which are the building blocks of electronics and computers. Understanding semiconductors (the building blocks of transistors), or any material cannot be fully grasped with classical physics alone (i.e. physics known before the discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity). Without quantum mechanics, the “information age” (and much of modern science) would not exist today. The inventions of the computer, the transistor, the World Wide Web and the laser used in fibre optics, (the basis for a global telecommunications industry) owe their existence to quantum mechanics and are worth trillions of dollars.
But to stress this point again, these were unexpected outcomes. The pursuit was science, the quest for purity and the beauty of an unassailable proof – and a closer approximation of reality.
There were three things about the book that really caught my attention, which are so germane to the debate we have started with the Big Potatoes Manifesto:
THE ‘LIMITS’ OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
Kumar relates the story about Max Planck, the father of Quantum who at the age of sixteen enrolled at Munich University to study physics because of his burgeoning desire to understand the working of nature. Planck spent three years at Munich which were to have a big impact on him, mainly because he was advised to give up physics as ‘it is hardly worth studying physics anymore’ because there was nothing important left to discover. Planck went on to become the father of quantum mechanics because, as he discovered, there was certainly a lot more to discover about how the world works. Planck reacted against the narrowness and conservatism of his peers. He defied the attitude, which we seem to accept today, that mankind had somehow reached the limits to knowledge. Instead his openness and willingness to question existing orthodoxy unleashed a scientific revolution, the creation of new knowledge and ultimately, the development of remarkable innovations that changed life in the 20th century.
PEERS COMMITTED TO THE GREATER GOOD
The second striking point Kumar brings out in his examination of the interaction of this extraordinary group of scientists was their willingness to engage each other as professionals in a common quest for truth. First, what united them was a belief in objective truth. Second, that despite different opinions (and often bitterly at odds) they were nevertheless united as pioneers committed to something greater than themselves.
This is illustrated by the example of Max Planck’s endorsement of Einstein for membership of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1913 despite fundamentally disagreeing with his position on light-quanta. Planck’s proposal contained the following paragraph: ‘In sum, it can be said that among the important problems, which are so abundant in modern physics, there is hardly one in which Einstein did not take a position in a remarkable manner. That he might sometimes have overshot the target in his speculations, as for example in his light-quantum hypothesis, should not be counted against him too much. Because without taking a risk from time to time it is impossible, even in the most exact natural sciences, to introduce real innovations’ (p52)
Not only do we see a remarkable willingness to recommend a fellow scientist despite disagreeing with him but the clear connection between disagreements and risk as critical to scientific advance.
What a stark contrast with today where contestation is regarded as a religious infraction against ‘truth’ (as in the ‘Climategate’ debacle) and where risk is consciously prevented by concentration on what we already know or what Lord Browne thinks can be safely developed. Planck reveals what science is really about in contrast with today’s instrumentalism and manufacture.
THE BEAUTY AND NOBILITY OF SCIENCE
The third and final striking point in the book is the nobility of the young scientists involved in this rich period of scientific discovery. For them, as in the example of Ernest Rutherford, exploiting their research for financial gain was seen as a distraction from the really important goal of making a scientific reputation for themselves. Rutherford who had started working on the detection of ‘wireless’ waves (radio waves) chose instead to pursue his academic passion (in contrast to others working in this field like the Italian Guglielmo Marconi who amassed a fortune).
This is not to suggest that exploiting scientific discoveries were wrong or that the people who did were somehow flawed. Far from it. It highlights how the pursuit of science requires those types of individuals who regard it as a noble calling and are given the freedom to pursue it regardless of measurable outcomes (as we would have it in today’s crude management-speak). Kumar reveals how the young men at the centre of the quantum revolution were driven not only by their own self- belief (and no doubt, huge egos), but also by the pursuit of something greater than material wealth – a belief in scientific and human progress.
Of course that is precisely what is being questioned today, which is why the media concentrates its attention on the exploiters of science rather that present-day pioneers. So the founders of Google are feted for creating Google whereas in the past we would be looking for the scientific contribution they might have made towards humanity’s body of knowledge. Today we celebrate exploitation rather than the wonder of science underpinning these achievements.
The question this raises is how we will ever create a culture that places greater value in the pursuit of knowledge rather than on its results?
As the world discovered through Max Planck, everything had not been explained. Kumar’s book is a great reminder that there is no such thing as natural limits and that the worst dimension of a culture of limits is that it constrains the thing we have an abundance – human ingenuity, perseverance and the noble ability to rise above petty egos, jealousies and parochialism to benefit humanity as a whole.
Kumar’s book is definitely Big Potatoes and should be read widely.
'Manjit Kumar has produced a brilliant, insightful account of the quantum story. Through a compelling narrative he interweaves the ideas, events and personalities involved in the paradoxical quest for the truth about uncertainty. The book is a fascinating read about this tumultuous and revolutionary period in the history of science. Highly recommended'.
'I found this a fascinating read. If you are interested in how science works and the power of personalities, you will love this book. Using really well researched personal details of the lives of the key figures, Kumar shows how quantum science developed and led to the scientific and philosophical conflict between Bohr and Einstein - a debate that continues to this day. What is real and what is only observed? Kumar blends biography and quantum theory, covering probably the most exciting period in the development of science and thought.'
'A book that is very difficult to close... maybe it's in a state that is both open and closed until you look at it, who knows?'
'This has to be one of the most gripping non-fiction books I have ever read! It reads like a well-organised narrative and there is rarely a dull moment in the entire book, although the author did have plenty to work with. As well as the emergence of this controversial 'quantum physics' the scientists had to compete with the outbreak of two world wars, it was not an easy time to be a theoretical physicist.
The chapters each focus on a different player in the quantum debate so that the reader gets a taste of the characters' backgrounds and their individual work that all led to the great breakthroughs that were made. This means that by the point in the story when all the characters are starting to meet and debate the implications of quantum mechanics, the reader finds they know their personalities and are compelled to find out who comes out on top.
Any physics that is mentioned in the book is explained thoroughly and generally only goes into as much detail as is necessary for the reader to understand the debate. This can get slightly tedious at times for anyone with a background in physics but it does mean that the book is suitable for anyone.
Overall, it is a fascinating and compelling read that find an exciting balance of scientific content, concerning what still is one of the most mysterious areas of physics, and the personal experience of the people involved.'
'Manjit Kumar's "Quantum" is an absolute page turner. I could hardly put it away and wanted to read it all over again once I came to the end. There is not a lot of new content which cannot be found in biographies or other expositions of the quantum struggle, which ended with Copenhagen. What makes this book unique is a high-pace narrative style pulling the reader from one chapter with one fundamental discovery into the next combined with an almost uncanny ability of the author to unfold most complex physical and philosophical concepts at that same high pace. The narrative also makes the discussions, tensions and emotions so vivid that one feels compelled to jump right into the scenes to hear the debates first hand.'
'A masterful balance of theory and history, Quantum is an engaging dip into one of the most fascinating streams of modern scientific discovery. The book includes simple, carefully calibrated explanations of the most important theories but does not get bogged down by them. The real story here is the colorful pioneers who explore the mind-boggling terrain that is the quantum world. The author fills his account with insightful portraits, revealing encounters, and one or two hilarious anecdotes which both humanize the major players and illuminate their astonishing genius. His style is accessible but never fritters. In fact, I think this material could be adapted for a marvelous course by "The Teaching Company." I think I'll tell them about it.'
'Many scientists I've met are still passionate about the implications of quantum mechanics, Einstein's criticisms of the theory and Bohr's responses to those criticisms. Many scientists who are not outwardly enthusiastic about the debate and history seem to have approaches toward science that are influenced by it. (just my opinion). In any case, the subject of this book is fascinating.
Of the books I have read about this topic this one may be the best read.'
Saturday, 3 July 2010
First, as someone who has struggled to understand quantum mechanics when it is presented in textbooks as a whole system, I was delighted to find that physicists have the same problem. Even (if not especially) Albert Einstein. By taking us through the history of it, and enjoying the exhilaration of every incremental discovery, theory and step, I find I am really comfortable reading about it, and have no difficulty assimilating it. When you're along for the ride instead of the textbook, it makes a gigantic difference. Bravo, Kumar.
Second, it became painfully obvious that physics is far more philosophy than science. I felt like the arguments came from my Logic 101 class. Socrates would have enjoyed crossing swords with Bohr. The arguments of the scientists were really basic, philosophical differences of opinion, not the least bit esoteric or idiosyncratic. It seems that medicine is not the only "science" where they tell you to get a second opinion. That was a revelation, and it made physics all that more human.
Third, Quantum confirms a lifelong suspicion that this was and is a young man's game. It seems that every time things started to get stale, some precocious 26 year old student would come along with a new portion of a theory, and rock the establishment. And then live off that discovery for the rest of his life - winning the Nobel Prize (as almost every one of them eventually did), getting professorships - but never shaking the tree again. In music we would call them one hit wonders. Einstein was about the only one with two hits - brainstorms in 1905 and 1916 - but then, even he couldn't fathom the totality of quantum physics and never made another major contribution to its progress. By the age of 50 he was calling himself an "old fool".
So in addition to all the praise heaped on Quantum for its superior exposition, I think it's a wonderful addition to the discussion of the human condition. Valuable on a number of levels.
What a great book.'
Sunday, 13 June 2010
'This is the book about the early days of quantum theory,' writes Professor Chris Clarke in a review for the Scientific and Medical Network.
'It is an engrossing read because as each character enters the scene they are introduced with a careful biographical sketch, so that we can identify with them and share their personal grappling with the ideas as they unfold.'
He concludes that 'the book is unequalled as an exposition of the personalities and ideas on which quantum theory is founded'.
Read the entire article here.
This was the title of a review of Quantum by Gordon Miller in Physics Education. Published last year, I was sent a copy of the review recently - it's only available online to subscribers, so here's an extract:
'Most of the book reads almost like a thriller, with clues and evidence appearing, and the ‘physics detectives’ gradually unravelling the plot. The author masterfully builds up the tension, making the book a real page turner because you want to find out how the next piece of the jigsaw fits into place…. What really makes this book stand out from the crowd for me is the biographical detail and the way that the physicists and their work are placed in the wider historical context. This really helps to bring the individual characters and what they were doing to life…. I can certainly see myself returning to read individual chapters at frequent intervals in the future.'
Friday, 11 June 2010
This is the front cover of Quantum published by Norton in the USA and Canada on May 24. Thanks to all those involved in its production, but especially to Angela Vonderlippe, Laura Romain, Winfrida Mbewe and Erica Stern. Thanks also to Zoe Pagnamenta, my American agent, who together with Peter Tallack, found Quantum a home in the US. Lastly, I'd like to thank Simon Flynn of Icon Books, who helped this and other editions of the book by responding to requests from my other publishers for elements, such the line drawings, first produced for the UK version of Quantum.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Monday, 7 June 2010
Richard Holmes, whose The Age of Wonder was shortlisted alongside Quantum for last year's BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, selects Manjit Kumar's book as one of his.
Read the full piece here.
Monday, 24 May 2010
Laura Miller on Salon.com on the American edition:
'"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics," wrote Richard Feynman, and given that he won a Nobel Prize in physics, why should you or I want to take a shot at it? Not that you or I could plausibly claim to understand the weird, protean, paradoxical subatomic world that quantum science describes, but anyone reading Manjit Kumar's "Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality" will surely feel they've gotten a bit closer. It's an exhilarating, if also disorienting, sensation.
"Quantum" orbits around the celebrated fifth Solvay conference, held in Brussels in 1927, a gathering of the greatest minds in 20th-century physics. It was at Solvay that Werner Heisenberg and Max Born presented the theory of quantum mechanics they had been working on for several years under the informal leadership of Niels Bohr. Their understanding of subatomic reality came to be called "the Copenhagen interpretation" (after the location of the Institute of Theoretical Physics, which Bohr ran), and its champions proclaimed it a "closed theory, whose fundamental physical and mathematical assumptions are no longer susceptible of any modification."
Albert Einstein, also present, disagreed, and the following decades saw a series of intense, if friendly, arguments between Einstein and Bohr -- who, as Kumar notes, had a diagram of one of Einstein's most famous thought experiments up on his office chalkboard on the day he died in 1962. That experiment, which involved the imaginary weighing of a "box filled with light" before and after a single photon is allowed to escape, is an example of the surreal mental territory that "Quantum" explores. Reading it is a bit like lifting the hood of your mind and moving the working parts around; it's challenging and trippy -- as only the Dr. Seuss realm of the quantum can be.
Kumar, a science writer in Britain (where this book was first published, two years ago), makes a point of playing up the collaborative aspects of the evolution of quantum theory, as well as the conflicts; the two can't really be separated. He begins with Max Planck's reluctant invention of the "quanta" -- an indivisible unit of energy -- in 1900. He insisted it was a mere theoretical, most likely temporary "trick," designed to get certain formulas to work properly. When, five years later, Einstein, during a period of astounding scientific creativity that included his famous paper on special relativity, suggested that light might be made up of "particle-like quanta" (later called photons), he thought of it as his most daring break with the classical physics of Newton. Light, like other forms of energy, had long been believed to flow in continuous waves, not in tiny chunks.
It was in the 1920s that quantum mechanics as we know it was born, with physicists like Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac scrutinizing each other's proposals, seizing upon weak spots to investigate, discovering little-known laboratory data or mathematical methods that might provide a solution and writing important papers only to find that some theoretician in the hinterlands had gotten there first. It was, as Kumar puts it, "a golden age ... unparalleled since the scientific revolution in the 17th century led by Galileo and Newton." The dollops he offers of these scientists' personal lives and youths emphasize the importance of teachers, mentors and patrons, as well as those rare individuals, like Bohr, whose tact and generosity aided in keeping things collegial. (By contrast, 17th century science was impeded by the paranoia and secrecy of Newton.)
That it can be hard to wrap your brain around the principles of the subatomic world is a given. It's a strange kingdom, full of things that don't exist or exist in two opposite conditions at once until somebody looks at them, particles that influence each other instantaneously despite being separated by lightyears and electrons that move from one place to another without traveling through the space in between. Books on the subject rely on good metaphors, clearly explained, and Kumar delivers them, but "Quantum" is not for the complete novice or those timid souls who quail at the sight of an equation. (I can't claim to understand the few equations Kumar includes myself, but they don't scare me away, and I found this book is perfectly intelligible even though I can't do the math.)
Much of the debate between Einstein and Bohr revolved around Einstein's intuitive rejection of the implication of the Copenhagen interpretation -- which is that objective reality, independent of any observer, doesn't really exist. Bohr, by contrast (and sounding a lot like Wittgenstein), insisted that physics isn't concerned with what is but solely with what we can say about it. Not only were these two geniuses battling over where to draw the line between the familiar, cause-and-effect world of classical Newtonian physics and the quantum Wonderland, they were sketching, erasing and resketching the boundary between science and philosophy, debating the nature of reality itself.
Einstein was for many years regarded as a stubborn, even senile holdout against the quantum gospel, but Kumar finds that view simplistic. "Quantum" concludes by surveying developments since the deaths of Bohr and Einstein, such as Bell's Theorem and the many worlds interpretation, some of which point to critical problems that the Copenhagen interpretation left unresolved. (One is how the phenomenon of the universe came to be in the first place if there was no one to observe the Big Bang.) All of this, the author maintains, has led to "a reconsideration of the long-standing verdict against Einstein in his long-running debate with Bohr." Instead, he paints Einstein as a partisan of that most precious of scientific tools: the question. That's why he ends with one of the physicist's favorite quotations, from the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing: "The aspiration to truth is more precious than its assured possession.'
Meanwhile the book has been selling well in Calgary in Canada - see this bestseller list.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
'Finished Quantum last night and I have to say it was absolutely brilliant! I've never read such a riveting and enthralling science book. To be fair, it's not just science it's a narrative history of the development of qunatum physics and focuses on a debate between Einstein and his rival, Bohr. The science bits are broken up enough by the story to make it very readable. It was great to meet all those famous names as well, like Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, to meet the personalities not just the scientists. It was fascinating to discover that Einstein struggled with maths and had to receive help developing his theory of relativity. A lot of the book takes place against the backdrop of WW2 as well; there's a good deal of drama here.'
'If you're at all interested in physics, and particularly in particle physics then I'd thoroughly recommend this. It's not just science, it's history and philosophy too.'
'I still don't understand quantum physics. But I'm all the more astonished by its weirdness and I've been very inspired to read more about it.'
You can follow and add to the thread here.
'Science editor and writer Kumar (coauthor, Science and the Retreat from Reason) adds to the growing number of popular works on the history of quantum mechanics and to the continuing debate on the sufficiency of quantum theory as a representation of "reality." He devotes the bulk of his book to the work and the debates of the physicists who developed quantum mechanics in the first half of the 20th century. Almost inevitably, Kumar repeats many of the quotes from Bohr, Einstein, and other greats that have already been offered by authors of similar works. His greatest strength is his clear discussion (without mathematics) of the advances and debates in the discipline. The last few pages of the text carry the history of physics into the 21st century as experiments continue to support the standard theory but do not yet end the discussion.'
'VERDICT This is especially good for lay readers who would enjoy an excellent story about the long struggle of scientists to understand an important field of modern science.'
'A staggering account of the scientific revolution that still challenges our notions of reality. Kumar provides a gripping narrative of the birth of atomic physics in the first half of the 20th century ... Kumar evokes the passion and excitement of the period and writes with sparkling clarity and wit. Expertly delineates complex scientific issues in nontechnical language, using telling detail to weave together personal, political and scientific elements.'
I Liked Reading:
'This is a great book. If you are interested in the weird and wonderful quantum world, then you will find this book a fantastic read that flows very well from chapter to chapter and instantly engages you. What is particularly refreshing about Quantum is how it weaves in information about the personalities who were engaged in the scientific pursuit themselves rather than focusing exclusively on the science ... even if you know nothing about quantum theory then finding out more about it may be particularly exhilarating. Read it!'
'Kumar keeps the main thread of his narrative accessible to the intelligent general reader, particularly clarifying how Einstein’s belief in objective reality pits him against the daringly agnostic Bohr, who leaves the mysteries of wave-particle duality veiled in statistical probabilities and abstract formulas. Intellectual exhilaration runs high as Einstein repeatedly presses Bohr—posing daunting questions about how to weigh an imaginary box of light and how to explain eerily “entangled” particles. The future of science hangs in the balance: physics becomes high drama.'
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
'Manjit Kumar breathes new life into this classic story through superb writing and careful research'
The American edition of Quantum reviewed in Seed magazine.
Monday, 1 March 2010
'With vigor and elegance, Kumar describes the “clash of titans” that took place in the world of physics in the early 20th century ... Kumar, founding editor of Prometheus and a consulting science editor for Wired UK, recounts this meaty, dense, exciting story, filled with vivid characters and sharp insights. With physics undergoing another revolution today, Kumar reminds us of a time when science turned the universe upside down.'
Thursday, 18 February 2010
Friday, 29 January 2010
The full piece is here.
Friday, 22 January 2010
Thursday, 14 January 2010
'A must for budding physicists'
'I wish this book had been available when I was studying Physics. It provides a magnificent overview of the birth and development of the quantum age, as well as an insight into the personalities of the key contributors. It is well researched and just as importantly is a good read, impossible to put down, races along like a mystery novel, and inludes some poignant black and white photos of the most famous names in 20th century Physics. Should be on the compulsory reading list for Physics students in every university.'
The reviewing features on Waterstones page for the book here.