Skip to main content

The Demon and the Quantum – Robert J. Scully and Marlan O. Scully ***

It’s one of the inherent oddities of quantum theory that a quantum particle can be in more than one state at once – and for me, this must be a quantum book, because it manages to be both excellent and not-so-good at the same time.
Let’s start with the excellent. Robert Scully, with help from his physicist father Marlan, weaves a fascinating fabric of ideas from ancient Greece and quantum physics to provide an introduction to an exploration of the overlaps between thermodynamics and quantum theory. This leads on to the description of the concept of a ‘quantum eraser’ that may (there’s some dispute among physicists) be a demonstration of the ultimate quantum strangeness – that you can change the outcome of a quantum effect after it has, in effect, already been committed.
Scully starts in a gentle fashion and provides a solid introduction to thermodynamics, a subject that has rarely been given an effective popular science treatment. By using the clever conceit of a heat engine powered by a single molecule, he enables the reader to get a good grasp of engine efficiency from a modern viewpoint, encapsulating the wisdom of the steam age, but bringing it into a modern context.
So far, so good. However, the more than half of the book that is primarily about quantum phenomena has real problems. One is a tentative introduction of God into the equation. I don’t know if Robert Scully is explicitly saying that God is a necessary part of his thesis – it’s never stated quite that strongly – but the subject is touched upon several times without making it clear what his (Scully’s, not God’s) intentions are. This could be lived with. But the problem that brings the rating of this book down to three stars is that the quantum chapters aren’t well enough explained for a general reader.
There are too many assumptions about what people know, and the description of both the single atom quantum heat engine and the quantum eraser are likely to be baffling to anyone without a degree in physics. There are also big gaps in what’s presented. There’s a section that claims that the concept of the quantum eraser takes away the paradoxical nature of the EPR paradox that first introduced the concept of quantum entanglement. I was excited by this, having written a book about entanglement, but despite that background I couldn’t understand what it was saying about EPR, or how what was said took away the paradox. It’s frustrating, because the intention here is excellent, but the science writing isn’t at a level that will work for a reader of popular science.
I would highly recommend this for physics and engineering undergrads and above, however. There are some excellent challenges to aspects of physics you are likely to get in your course – and good insights into the way a real scientific theory is developed from the description of the discussions between different groups over the quantum eraser. But, sadly, I can’t recommend it for anyone else.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…