James Kakalios' "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics" is an almost entirely math-free overview of one of the most mysterious, counter-intuitive fields of modern physics. In his well-written, lively work intended for the general reader, Dr. Kakalios actually tells three interrelated and integrated stories about quantum mechanics, a subject that, for over a century, has defined the careers of many theoretical physicists and frightened countless college students. This highly readable volume makes the basic concepts of quantum mechanics accessible to any curious reader with a desire to learn.
One of the three stories Dr. Kakalios tells covers the growth of our knowledge about atoms and their interactions with each other. You'll find out about the insights of history's most famous physicists, such as Drs. Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger. You'll learn a lot about "matter waves," a concept essential to understanding the subject. You'll gain a simplified but functional grasp of atomic structure, electron energy transitions, electromagnetism, superfluidity, superconductivity and many other esoteric and fascinating subjects. But don't think this is easy stuff. You'll have to think hard about what Dr. Kakalios presents, and maybe re-read some parts to be sure you grasp it. At least I did, and I was not totally ignorant about subatomic physics at the outset. Quantum mechanics and solid-state physics are complicated subjects, and it takes effort to understand them.
Dr. Kakalios' second story centers on his interest in classic pulp science fiction magazines such as "Amazing Stories" and "Science Wonder Stories," as well as more recent comic books such as "The Watchmen" and "Challengers of the Unknown." He says, in a self-deprecating footnote, "...as a physics professor who is also an avid fan of science fiction and comic books, I am simultaneously a nerd and a geek." Thus, he shows how (or whether) quantum mechanics could explain the unusual super-powers of various fictional characters such as Dr. Manhattan and Dr. Solar. Although I was not familiar with most of the characters he profiles, I still found these parts of the book pretty absorbing. You shouldn't have to be a fan-boy to enjoy these digressions.
The third story shows the roles quantum mechanics play in making possible many of the devices and capabilities we take for granted today. For example, lasers, DVD players, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), flash drives and cell phones would not exist if their designers had not understood quantum mechanics. Dr. Kakalios explains these modern "conveniences" in detail, and then predicts future developments such as quantum computers and nanotechnology. Being a practical engineer type, I enjoyed these parts of the book most of all. But, having said that, I think "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics" is interesting and informative from cover to cover, and I'm sure I will re-read it from time to time.
Speaking of covers, "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics" has one of the coolest covers I've seen on a book in many years. It's unrelated to the quality of the book, of course, but the cover's retro artwork, with simulated tears, wrinkles and frayed edges that look so real you'll think the book is damaged, is really eye-catching. You can mention the neat cover at your next cocktail party, while you captivate your rapturous audience with your new-found knowledge of De Broglie matter waves.