Quantum, Manjit Kumar

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:32 am

This book brings to life the debate that raged over the nature of reality in the early twentieth century, namely: is the universe knowable, or can our understanding of it only ever be partial, and ultimately probabilistic? The debate, and the destruction of classical physics as it then existed, came about because of a revolutionary rupture in physics – the birth of the quantum.
Whilst being accessible to the non-physicist, this book takes you through the origins and major developments of quantum theory in enough depth to give a picture of the truly mind-blowing questions it posed of the conventional physics of the day. Newtonian physics did not allow for subatomic particles to simply disappear and at the same time instantaneously reappear in a different position – what we’d colloquially call teleporting. But that is exactly what quantum theory suggested.

Not only that, but quantum theory led to the insight (by Heisenberg), that any act of measurement will always have an effect on the object measured, and in doing so make other characteristics about the object unknowable. This is the uncertainty principle, and one man, perhaps the most famous physicist of all, didn’t like it: Einstein.

Einstein’s battles with the supporters of quantum theory (and thus a probabilistic and non-deterministic world view) form the heart of this book, and they are brilliantly recounted. Kumar also gives biographical information about the protagonists, bringing the period to life.

Einstein never gave up trying to find a way to incorporate quantum theory into a larger framework that would regain the measurable, deterministic character of Newtonian physics, but he didn’t succeed. Quantum theory prevailed and has ultimately had a much larger impact on every day life that his own theory of general relativity. But perhaps one day, Kumar suggests, Einstein will be vindicated, if attempts to incorporate the quantum world into a ‘theory of everything’ (the most famous of which is string theory) are successful. Is reality knowable, or at bottom, simply random? This book brilliantly tells the story of the start of that debate, but it’s far from over.


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