Skip to main content

The Quantum Divide – Christopher C. Gerry & Kimberley M. Bruno ***

Broadly speaking, science books are either popular science or textbooks. The popular science book is aimed at a general audience with little or no science background required and fills in the basics in a far more interesting way than science was every taught at school. The textbook does the business of educating with the theories, while not worrying too much about the historical context, with readability always coming a distant second. It assumes the reader has science and maths education to the required level. But The Quantum Divide, perhaps in keeping with the concept of quantum superposition, manages to be a bit of both at the same time.
What we have here is an exploration of quantum physics and the divide between the world of quantum particles and the macro universe. It is pitched in a way that I have simply never seen before. For a very narrow band of readers this book is absolutely superb. If you have been fascinated by a book on a quantum subject, like my own The God Effect on quantum entanglement, but want to dig into more depth about what is actually going on, and what was really undertaken in some of the experiments you usually have to either read a textbook or go to an academic paper. But both of these are pretty impenetrable and too maths-heavy for the general reader. Gerry and Bruno give that extra meat without requiring heavy duty mathematical support. There are equations in here, but they are used as shorthand, not to do maths. The result is quite extraordinary – it really expands on anything you can get from a popular science book without being too heavy to cope with, and for that, the authors need a huge pat on the back.
To be honest, though, I don’t think most popular science readers actually want this extra detail. On the other hand, university level physics students will find it too basic and not mathematical enough (though it could provide a good introduction before a course). This is a great book for, say, science journalists and those with a similar level of semi-professional interest – but probably not for many others.
The other slight problem is that the authors can occasionally be quite prissy and negative about guess who… science writers. Their audience in all probability. Take this quote:
Quantum theory does not predict that an object can be in two or more places at once. The false notion to the contrary often appears in the popular press, but is due to a naïve interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The problem with this attitude is that it entirely misses the point. All descriptive models of something as counter-intuitive as quantum theory are inevitably approximations – what they are really doing here is not liking someone else’s language, even though it gets the basic point across better than their version. I don’t think this is any more a problem than when physicists speak of the big bang or dark matter as if it they are facts, rather than our current best accepted theories.
There’s a similar cringe-worthy section where the authors attack the suggestion that light is a particle in the true sense, which again seems nit-picking. Their argument seems to make little sense and given Richard Feynman was happy to say ‘I want to emphasize that light does come in this form – particles’ I find their position hard to justify. So there are a couple of places where a particular slant of interpretation gets in the way of what otherwise is excellent explanation – but I think that can be forgiven.
Overall, then, a worthy and fascinating book but one that I suspect will only ever have a very limited audience.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…