IN MY VIEW: The hunt for quantum demons

"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics," claimed Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1965, some 10 years after Albert Einstein's death.

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JEFFREY BAIRSTOW

"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics," claimed Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1965, some 10 years after Albert Einstein's death. Not even the great father of atomic science himself could have risen to the challenge of sorting out atomic physics just after completing his theses on relativity. "I thought a hundred times as much about the quantum problems as I have about general relativity problems," said Einstein, in the late 1930s. The quantum literally became Einstein's demon.

But wait a minute–now comes a thick new book that purports to cover all you need to know on the thorny subject of quantum mechanics. The book is Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, by Manjit Kumar (W.W. Norton, New York, NY, 2009). Warning: This book may be dangerous to your health. I almost could not put this book down–I began missing meals and ignoring family member needs.

For once, here is a well-written and highly informative book on a difficult subject. Over the years, I have examined several books by leading authors in this field, but this is the only one that lives up to its title. By reading this book, you may find that you have developed an informed layman's view of quantum mechanics. The book reads more like a novel than a beginning textbook for vigorous demos of proofs.

The book differs from conventional biographies in that it uses a timeline from the days of the pioneers (J.J. Thomson of Britain, Max Planck of Germany, etc.) to contemporary scientists (Anthony Leggett, Richard Feynman, etc.). So what you are reading seems to be a series of essays about Max Planck and the "gang of nine." In rough historical order, the list looks like this: Planck, Rutherford, Pauli, Heisenberger, Bohr, Schrodinger, Einstein, Dirac, Marie Curie, and Bragg. Some list!

Before you read this book, I recommend that you take close look at the first of the B&W photos in the middle of the book. This is a splendid group photo taken at the fifth Solway conference, in October 1927. The two dozen attendees comprise all the key researchers in the field plus a few observers sent to keep their professors abreast of new developments. The assembled brain power is staggering! These meetings were sponsored by Ernst Solway, a Belgian industrialist who made a fortune from the manufacture of sodium carbonate.

Such "quantum summit meetings" were key conferences for the leading scientists of that time. But there were many larger formal meetings held in London, Berlin, Copenhagen, and other major cities. For example, it was not unusual to have a thousand attendees at the London meetings of the distinguished British Royal Society.

Often the meetings were also supported by leading celebrities of the day. For example, in 1930, the playwright George Bernard Shaw was the master of ceremonies for a lavish fund-raising event at the plush Savoy Hotel in London. Einstein was the guest of honor. Shaw wittily commented that, given the intellectual firepower in the room, "I had to talk about Ptolemy and Aristotle, Kepler and Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, gravitation, and relativity and modern astrophysics, and heaven knows what…"

Shaw then summarized the current state of play as "Ptolemy made a universe which lasted 1,400 years. Then Newton also made a universe which lasted 300 years. Einstein has made a universe and I can't tell you how long that will last." Einstein laughed as loudly as anyone at Shaw's witticisms.

Kumar deftly interposes the developments in quantum physics with the rarely described personal lives of the major players. This combination of the scholarly work with the personal events is rarely attempted with physicists, but Kumar succeeds where others have failed miserably. His sweep is both broad and narrow with surprising success.

Kumar's writings appear fairly frequently in what the British call the "quality" daily papers, such as The Guardian. He also writes for the UK edition of Wired. A quick Google search should find ample examples.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
[email protected]

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