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The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World [Paperback]

James Kakalios
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

21 Oct 2010
In the pulp magazines and comics of the 1950s, it was predicted that the future would be one of gleaming utopias, with flying cars, jetpacks, and robotic personal assistants. Obviously, things didn't turn out that way. But the world we do have is actually more fantastic than the most outlandish predictions of the science fiction of the mid-20th century. The World Wide Web, pocket-sized computers, mobile phones and MRI machines have changed the world in unimagined ways. In 'The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics', James Kakalios uses examples from comics and magazines to explain how breakthroughs in quantum mechanics led to such technologies. The book begins with an overview of speculative science fiction, beginning with Jules Verne and progressing through the space adventure comic books of the 1950s. Using the example of Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel and film Watchmen, Kakalios explains the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, and describes nuclear energy via the hilarious portrayals of radioactivity and its effects in the movies and comic books of the 1950s. Finally, he shows how future breakthroughs will make possible ever more advanced medical diagnostic devices - and perhaps even power stations on the moon that can beam their power to earth.

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The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World + The Physics of Superheroes + The Physics of Star Trek
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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (21 Oct 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715638181
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715638187
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 379,414 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'over the years I have read numerous introductions to quantum physics but James Kakalios's The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics has just supplanted George Gammow's Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory as my favourite guide to this enigmatic area of would be hard pressed to find a more understandable introduction to quantum mechanics which touches all our lives, from smoke alarms to computers, from TV remotes to MRI scanners...[Kakalios] judging by his books must be a fantastic lecturer...even if you have read popular introductions before Kakalios brings the story up to date, explaining, for example how flash drives and blu-rays work and how they got their names ....always entertaining...packed with anecdotes...intellectually and scientifically rigorous but with a sense of wonder and humour. For a popular science book, I can't conceive of higher praise' 10/10 --Fortean Times

'Kakalios is a man who loves both physics and comics, and it really shines through' --SFX Magazine

'With passion, genile affability and a penchant for bad (truly bad jokes), Kakalios ably relates the most baffling of theorems' --Kirkus

About the Author

James Kakalios is a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota. The popularity of his seminar titled 'Everything I Know About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books' led to the publication of 'The Physics of Superheroes' in 2005.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK..but 2 Feb 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I only got halfway through the book, and that's a bad sign. The author tries to make it interesting by linking comic book heros' superpowers to how quantum mechanics actually works. The trouble is that comics don't really follow any real scientific rules, so the analogies get stretched to breaking point.
I read quite a few popular science books, and I'd class this as slow going. I wasn't learning much, and at times I was lost and disinterested.
I don't think he does a good job of making a very difficult subject either understandable or interesting - he does an ok job, but that wasn't enough to keep me reading.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
When I found this book in my local bookstore, I was immediately attracted by its friendly cover and the promise of exploring quantum mechanics without pages of maths. At last, I thought, a book written to explain this subject to a normal person. Unfortunately, my expectations were misplaced. This book makes a genuine contribution to explaining QM, and I know more about it now than I did before, but it is not a book for the layman. You really need to have a good physics background to be able to get anything out of this book, and even then it is hard going.

I must quote the brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman, at this point because he once said "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics". This really explains the enormity of the task that the author, Prof. Kakalios set himself, and he hasn't done a bad job in trying to expain the subject with some reference to practical applications and examples of QM. He also does this with reference to comic book superheroes, something which didn't really work for me, partly perhaps, because I have never really been a great reader of sci-fi comics, but mainly, I think, because it is a rather contrived counterpoint to the subject of quantum mechanics.

Kakalios begins by explaining three 'amazing' things which we need to understand if we are to gain any understanding of QM. This was a good start, and he then applies these things to atoms and particles, and it quickly becomes complicated - because QM is complicated. He gives a number of examples of the effects of QM as he goes along, such as glow-in-the-dark stickers, lasers and DVDs. This helps, but perhaps the book would have benefited from more of these examples instead of discussing Buck Rogers.

In summary, this book is not for the layman, but for the physicist. It does make a genuine contribution to what has been written about quantum mechanics, but it is still a very difficult area to understand.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Jason Mills VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
James Kakalios clearly loves comics as much as he loves quantum physics, and pounces on any excuse to lever them into this book. These interjections (often illustrated with frames or covers from comics) take the form of light-hearted nerdiness:

"...the amazing superpowers displayed by Dr Manhattan... are a consequence of his having control over his quantum mechanical wave function."

I rolled my eyes, but was happy to indulge these cheerful diversions, even if they're not terribly helpful, as they do leaven the load of a respectably detailed and sometimes challenging overview of the subatomic world.

Whimsy aside, Kakalios adopts a very nuts and bolts approach, with clean diagrams and solid metaphors (energy levels in a semiconductor, for instance, are 'orchestra', 'mezzanine' and 'balcony' seats). This is not a history of the field: instead, the author is concerned with telling us, insofar as is possible in a popular text, how stuff WORKS, from wave functions and uncertainty, up through radiation and fermions, to lasers, transistors and MRI scanners. This is a prosaic and practical book, and if I occasionally had to squint and furrow my brow to understand, nonetheless, understand I did (however briefly!). A sound and engaging account not only of what quantum physics is, but why it matters and how it affects us every day
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Quality 8 July 2013
Format:MP3 CD|Verified Purchase
Super book. don't be fooled into thinking this book only has "entertainment" value. It certainly is written in a very accessible way, but it isn't short changed on the Physics. A great book, which may inspire you, perhaps like it did me, to go off at tangent and explore deeper aspects of Quantum Mechanics / Light / Matter, which in turn can take you off into many other areas, if you have the curiosity to do so. This book is a great starting place and has the ability to engage you, in an entertaining manner.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Three, Three, Three Books in One 17 Jan 2011
By Terry Sunday - Published on
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, " 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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting reading 2 Jan 2011
By Captain Bob - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was very much surprised (and pleased) with this book. It was not too technical that the average high-school student could not understand it yet it was detailed enough to describe processes that many of us are not aware of.
It was very interesting how the author kept tying the subject matter back to "science fiction" and the connection between fiction and science. However, it did seem that some of these were a bit too long (and distracting). All in all though, it was well written and a quick read. It is a natural for Kindle.

I donated my copy to the local library hoping it will attract interest in this subject among high-school and college students.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I enjoyed the book. 12 Jan 2011
By John - Published on
Quantum mechanics is the bizarre science of how the world operates at a tiny scale where light is made of particles and particles are waves (or at least defined by wave functions). The book explains this non intuitive and complex science with real world analogies and very little math. Although I have had some quantum physics back in college, I enjoyed the book and gained some insight from it.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics - James Kakalios (Gotham Books) 24 Feb 2011
By BlogOnBooks - Published on
James Kakalios is one funny guy. Sure, he is a "distinguished professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota," but he makes no bones about the fact that he is a science-fiction nut whose mission (at least in this book) is to teach the layman how to understand the sometimes dense principles of quantum mechanics using real-life examples mixed with a hefty dollop of humor and Buck Rogers atmospherics.

Kakalios begins his journey by simultaneously seducing and yet steering us away from notions of that Jetson's style, sci-fi future we were supposed to be living by now - complete with flying cars, personal jet-packs and robotic assistants - and shifts our thinking to appreciate the more complex real world developments of iPhones, laptop computers and the place you are now reading this article, the World Wide Web itself.

Kakalios mission is to fuse his knowledge of sci-fi history (the original Sci-Fi pulper, Hugo Gernsback's "Amazing Stories," serves as the basis for many of his examples) with the evolution of the theories, formulas and forces that emerged out of such fictional thinking and landed in the labs of the last 50 years. Like the `fun' professor in college, he explains meaningful theories but infuses them with colorful (to say the least) stories of how these discoveries came about (like how the Schrodinger equation was filled with plenty of suspense... and sex!) Using examples from Dr. Manhattan to the Manhattan Project, (as well as his own 'superheroes' like Niels Bohr, Einstein, Max Planck and others) the professor creates scenario after scenario where seemingly complex theories are explained in a "oh-I-see-how-that-works" style using story lines, diagrams and historical connections to make the light go off in your head. (DVD, glow-in-the-dark, photon, laser-light, that is.)

Now, we don't pretend to fully grasp every scientific revelation presented here (though we are a lot clearer on the Second Law of Thermodynamics as well as the future of nanotechnology), we certainly understand much more about movies like Transformers and Watchman (which Kakalios worked on). As far as finding a way to have students understand complicated scientific theories through a connection to pop culture goes, Kakalios has succeeded big-time. The fact that this can even be considered a laymen's text is proof enough of that.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book. 22 Dec 2010
By Wayne Robinson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a book I feel I will be certain to reread. It has done something that I thought impossible; that I might possibly understand, some day, how the high tech devices I use in daily life (such as the iPad I read it on) actually work, sort of (the details are very clouded). And how the magic of nuclear magnetic imaging occurs. Highly recommended for the technologically challenged (actually, I'm of such an age that in my childhood 2 tin cans joined by a length of string was regarded as high tech communication ...).
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