Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Quantum Moment - Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber ***

This is a book that is trying to be two very different things at the same time, which I suppose, given the subject, is apt. But that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. On the one hand we find a really quite in-depth exploration of the development of quantum theory. There are some genuinely valuable insights and explanations, with significantly more use of equations than is common in popular science book, but rarely in a way that is scary. On the other hand, it churns out all the hackneyed attempts to base art on science that inevitably are either amateurish or cringemaking - plus presenting some of the more outrageous history of science ideas that emerged from the 1960s when everything had to break the mould and be provocative, however far fetched their ideas seemed.

I can imagine this was done to try to broaden the audience of the book. I can just see the marketing people thinking 'Popular science readers will love it, and so will arty types, so we'll sell lots more copies.' In practice, I think the reverse will happen, because a fair number of popular science enthusiasts will be put off by the wishy-washy science-as-metaphor stuff, while the arts types will find the hard core popular science tedious.

 I'm not quite sure how in touch the academic authors are with the real world either. At one point we are told that Planck's equation E=hν is 'one of the few equations recognizable by the public.' Really? They've clearly been on campus for too long and need to get out more.

There is so much good material in the science parts that it's a real shame that the reader has to plough through pages of the hand waving to get to it. We are told at one point, with enthusiasm and no sense of criticism, about the work of Valerie Laws, who in 2002 spray painted words onto sheep, enabling the flock to spell out randomly(ish) generated phrases. Apparently a spokesperson for Northern Arts, which funded this venture, said the result was 'an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum physics.' And the artist commented 'I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry, using the medium of sheep.' You couldn't parody this as a worse example of old-fashioned flaky linking of science and art. It's a ready-made Monty Python sketch. This had nothing to do with quantum physics.

There is plenty of great material in here if you want to expand a basic popular science understanding of quantum physics with a bit more depth, but you will have to wade through a lot of unnecessary material to get to it. Mostly the content seems spot on, though I was slightly concerned about a certain flexibility in the history of science presented when we hear, for instance, that returning from the 1911 Solvay conference 'British scientist Ernest Rutherford brought word back to England, where he shared his excitement with an entranced young Danish visitor, Niels Bohr.' Apart from Rutherford being a New Zealander, Bohr didn't meet Rutherford until the end of 1911 and I've never seen any suggestion that Rutherford was the first to bring the early quantum theory to Bohr's attention. So, approach with caution - but if you are tolerant (possibly more tolerant than me), you might enjoy it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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