Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You – Marcus Chown *****

Some while ago, one of www.popularscience.co.uk’s readers asked for some advice. He’d read our dismissive review of The Dancing Wu Li Masters and wondered if we could recommend an alternative as a good introduction to the amazing world of quantum theory. To be honest, we struggled. There are some reasonable books around, but they’re mostly quite dated, and none of them are top notch popular science. Luckily, though, Marcus Chown has come to our aid with Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, simply the best and most readable overview of the quantum world, with a great high level overview of general relativity thrown in as a bonus.
Right from the beginning you know that Chown is going to make this an interesting ride. He hits you between the eyes with some of the mind-boggling consequences of quantum physics and relativity, then takes the reader spiralling into the sub-atomic world to explore the nature of matter and the seemingly impossible behaviour of quantum particles that insist on being in more than one place at a time, in jumping over insuperable barriers and in making impossibly complex calculations trivial. All the half-familiar armoury of the quantum world, from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to superfluids, slots into place as step-by-step Chown builds a readily comprehensible picture of what is going on all around us, if only we could see into the world of individual atoms and photons of light.
Barely pausing for breath, Chown then does a Matrix-like blast into space, going from concentrating on the very small to the universal implications of relativity. Building steadily on the critical assumption of the unchangeable speed of light (in a vacuum), we find E=mc2 popping into place, and the rapid transition from the strange concepts of special relativity to the universal impact of general relativity and its implications for gravity. Chown eloquently demonstrates that “the force of gravity does not exist” in a similar way to the realization the centrifugal force does not exist. Each is just the tendency of objects to carry on moving the same way unless forced to do otherwise by being restricted by the environment about them, rather than a true force.
By the end of the book, quantum theory and relativity will no longer seem a mystery. You might not be an expert – inevitably some of the topics are glossed over with some of the subtlety slightly distorted, but the big picture is just right. It’s interesting that Chown manages this without using any of the over-fancy diagrams plaguing many recent books on these subjects – he uses great word pictures to do away with the need for illustrations.
If there’s any moan here it’s the bit of cosmology that seems rather tacked on in the last chapter. While relativity is relevant to theories of how the universe has expanded, cosmological concerns are something of a tangential topic, and we end up with very quick overviews of the big bang, dark matter, inflation etc. which don’t feel quite as superb as the rest of the book. I’d rather have lost these and had more detail on some of the more central topics. But that is a very small point.
Overall, anyone who is baffled by quantum theory or relativity – anyone who wants a guide that doesn’t assume you know anything, but doesn’t patronize – should run, not walk, to the bookstore and lay their hands on Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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