Monday, January 30, 2012

Quantum Leaps by Jeremy Bernstein

Not a typical quantum mechanics book, this is a personal narrative from an insider who knew the people working at the cutting edge of 20th century physics.
Cover of Quantum Leaps
Jeremy Bernstein is the author of many books, including Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element; Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma; Albert Einstein; Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos and A Theory for Everything. He wrote for the New Yorker for more than 30 years.

His scientific career has taken him to such renowned places of learning and research as the Institute for Advanced Study, Brookhaven National Laboratory, CERN, Oxford, the University of Islamabad, and the Ecole Polytechnique.

The Quantum World

In Quantum Leaps, Bernstein takes the reader on a personal journey through the world of physics and the struggle to understand the behavior of matter at very small scales. In the macroscopic world it is, for all practical purposes, perfectly adequate to model the motions, actions and reactions of objects in accordance with the laws laid out by Isaac Newton, eg. force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma).

However, at the atomic level (and smaller) things get weird. So weird in fact, that our ability to understand them in commonly experienced everyday terms fails miserably. This book is mostly about the physicists who developed the quantum theory of matter. Bernstein met quite a few of them and weaves his own personal anecdotes from the world of big-time physics in with what is mostly a historical perspective.

A Shaky Start

The book gets off to a questionable beginning with a meandering and unfocused couple of chapters. Frankly it's kind of hard to tell what the point of the book is. Bernstein mentions that the famous Neils Bohr was a terrible lecturer, often mumbling and getting sidetracked during his presentations.

It is almost as if Bernstein is channeling Bohr then, as he jumps from one anecdote to another, mentioning a meeting here and an idea there, and then suddenly skipping over to a controversy on a tangentially related topic. Fortunately, Bernstein's reputation as a master explainer and science writer is confirmed by the material that follows this rather disappointing beginning.

The Real World of Physics

After struggling through the first 50 pages or so, the reader is rewarded by an interesting and entertaining account that seems to exist on two branches. In one sense, the book is biographical in nature, as Bernstein recounts his early years at Harvard as both an undergraduate searching for something to do and a graduate student who, for a time, is still searching for the "right thing." The right thing turns out to be physics.

Bernstein provides an interesting running commentary on the ideas of David Bohm and John Stewart Bell. Both of these men made important contributions to the development of quantum theory, although not everyone agrees that their ideas are helpful. Most of the big names in 20th Century physics make an appearance. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, the aforementioned Bohr, and many others are all here.

This isn't a book from which to learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of quantum physics. It is however, a fascinating look at how real science progresses from one idea to the next, as the thoughts of many great thinkers jostle with difficult ideas and try to understand and explain what is essentially unobservable (in the direct sense) and virtually unexplainable. Science is a messy affair; people disagree on the interpretation of experiments and some ideas that are initially ridiculed are eventually accepted. That is how it really is.

Bernstein, Jeremy; Quantum Leaps; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009

1 comment:

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