Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Theory, by Adam Becker

Among the weird facts about the history of quantum theory, according to Adam Becker in What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Theory (2018), is that Niels Bohr, one of the originators of quantum theory, argued that the quantum world didn’t exist, as far as the normal Newtonian world was concerned, and that it was therefore impossible to ask questions about it.  Bohr wrote and spoke in such an obscure way that articles are written that argue over what he meant.  The irony at the center of this book is that although quantum theory is the source of precise measurements and of science that has produced many of the technological marvels of contemporary life, many quantum scientists and theorists aren’t sure what it means and how it works.  Quantum physics, as a way of explaining that the world isn’t really what it seems, is itself not what it seems. Moreover, the conflicts in personality and ambition, the political tensions, that characterize other avenues of life also plague research in physics.  The work of ambitious and personable physicists tends to get more attention than that of loners who prefer to work quietly. This is one of several reasons Becker cites for the relative success of the Copenhagen interpretation championed by the popular and influential Bohr, despites its flaws.

Every book I read about quantum physics I begin with the hope that it will do a better job than the others of making quantum physics clear, or at least clearer.  The uncertainty principle, quantum action at a distance, atomic structures, the measurement paradox, Schrödinger’s cat, locality vs. non-locality, wave-particle duality—I want to understand these concepts.  Becker does a better job than most in explaining them with some clarity, but as usually happens at a certain point my eyes glaze over.  My own cognitive limitations may be the problem.  Or maybe the complexity of quantum physics is overwhelming for someone who reads casually in the field. I continue to hope for understanding.

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