This is a lively and informative overview of quantum mechanics (and you don't get to say that very often!). It starts from the point where most TV programmes and glossy photo-books tend to finish, so the language and info is more challenging than you normally find in mainstream media and popular science books.
The writing style is very accessible and grounded in the real world but, even so, I suspect that most folk who don't have a science background will struggle to grasp some of the concepts or get to grips with how they might be visualised or calculated.
As a life sciences undergraduate (all the physicists in the room just tutted; biology is barely science as far as they're concerned...) I found some of it pretty challenging -- but definitely worthwhile. Cox and Forshaw have plainly intended the text to be absorbed by members of the public, and not just science nerds, and I have found it very rewarding to go back and re-read some segments until the gist has finally sunk in. If recent TV shows and CERN results have piqued your curiosity about particle physics, then this book does provide a detailed and comprehensible overview.
'The Quantum Universe' definitely answers one very big question - the 'hang on!' moment which occurs at the end of most BBC science programmes, when the viewer feels stranded halfway into a subject without an adequate explanation. You know, the way Horizon always seems to avoid going anywhere near any hard data these days, and just concentrates on the 'ooh' and 'ahh' stuff without providing any kind of demonstrable proof. I have long wanted to be able to pick up a book which will at least attempt to talk me through some of the tougher concepts in subatomic physics, and this is it. However, this is not a glossy picture book to flick through and pick up snippets form the captions. It's not full of factoids but discusses theoretical physics in some depth, and you will need some math to get a handle on the slippery stuff.
Recommended for enquiring minds, but don't expect it to be any easy read. It's like one of those equations where you get out only as much as you put in...
Most of the reviews I've seen for this book seem to be either from scientists who 'get it' or laymen who do not. All I can say is that I don't come from a scientific background, having found it all rather baffling at school but have become more interested in the subject later in life. This is the first book I've read on Quantum Theory & thanks to the clear explanations provided by Forshaw & Cox (AKA 'him out of D:REAM / off the telly with the haircut & telescope'), I both understood & enjoyed it. But then of course, there's the maxim about Quantum Theory that 'if you think you understand it, then you probably don't...'
Cox & Forshaw present this intimidating subject in a clear & reassuring way. There are areas where mathematical formulae are used but they reassure their readers that we shouldn't worry, that they are merely there for people who understand them & for the rest of us, the main points will be explained in the text. So while I found them intimidating at first glance, the authors' excellent breakdowns made them understandable while giving me a deeper appreciation of why mathematics is so important to Physics.
While the authors explain it very clearly, there's no hiding from the fact that this is a pretty mind-bending subject. Cox & Forshaw believe that the difficulty most people have is in assuming that what they call 'small things' must conform to the same rules as 'big things', such as only ever being in one place at once; apparently they do not, instead behaving in a accordance with a totally unique & much less concrete set of rules. So anyone expecting to be able to have a relaxing, passive read & come out of it understanding how a single electron can behave like an entire wave will find their expectations scuppered.
The subject does require effort & those of us who struggle may be reassured to know that we're in auspicious company - Quantum Theory is apparently so unlike the deterministic approach to Physics which preceded it that its pioneers were relatively young & the 'old guard' scientists (including Einstein) found it singularly baffling. But as the authors point out, it's not so much that Quantum Theory is weird, it's more that our 'common-sense' notions of how the world works are pretty bizarre when you take a close look at what's really going on. To this end, the authors address the issue of why we can't actually walk through walls (as actually attempted by the real-life Men Who Stare at Goats). Not only is this an entertaining notion but it also illustrates how unconventional quantum thinking has to be - because what initially sounds like a question too absurd to be worthy of consideration becomes much more puzzling when we consider that the atoms which make up ourselves & the wall consist almost entirely of 'empty' space.
So as long as you can push your preconceptions aside & embrace some pretty challenging ideas, then this is a fascinating read. Not only is it as clear an explanation as you're likely to encounter but the authors' sheer enthusiasm for the subject is utterly contagious. If nothing else, this is an awe-inspiring summary of how utterly clever primates clinging to a rock in the middle of nowhere can be.
on 2 November 2011
This isn't a safe book. It isn't one of those well crafted yet bland and simplified introductions to quantum physics, the type that breeze you on through the history and development of our realisations. Don't get me wrong - those are good books, many of which would complement and round out this latest offering from Cox and Forshaw. Instead, this is a book to make you think for yourself and wrestle down those fleeting shadows of insight as they flit past our consciousness, until, as if we were making the discoveries with them anew, we have our own little "Eureka" moments.
Starting from the most basic of principles and following the simplest and, one might say, obvious rules, Cox and Forshaw use a novel conceptual technique to lead us from the microcosmic world of the quantum into discovering why the macro world is as it is. More than that, we are left realising that it is not the quantum world that behaves strangely at all, but that the world as we know it is an amazing and yet inevitable realisation of the counter-intuitive behaviour of the quantum world.
The discovery and realisation of just why a particle-like nature appears out from a wave function is then surpassed by the insight into the limitations of quantum fluctuations and the revelation of how "real movement" occurs. The same conceptual technique shows why quantum behaviour is "fuzzy" and how, without resorting to macro-view analogies, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is built in to the fabric of the universe.
Frankly, had they stopped there I would have had my monies worth. But they then go on to demonstrate how these insights must truly be present in the quantum world in order for our modern discoveries and technological developments to work.
In a final act of exuberance, Cox and Forshaw pose their own version of an Einsteinian thought experiment... taking some basic axioms from physics and the nature of quantum behaviour to demonstrate how it is possible to calculate the maximum mass of a dead star. Yes, this section is a delve into the world of equations (though rather more engineering than physics!), but you have to forgive them revealing their passion and revelling in the beauty of such a demonstration.
I would not give this book to my mother for Christmas. But it will appeal to anyone with a passion to discover how the physical world works. It will challenge you to think for yourself and reward you as "the penny drops". I wish that I had read it when I was fifteen years old... what an inspiration that would have been!
I passed A level physics and actually did part of an engineering degree (40 years ago) so I dont think I am a complete dummy though 50 years out of date when it comes to these sort of discussions. I have tried for years to find a really comprehensible book that lets me begin to think I might just be getting the quantum thing at long last. This book is not it, leastways, not for me. Trouble is, all these books begin by making you believe that you will really begin to understand what all these clever wallahs with several degrees ranging from nuclear to astrophysics, through advanced maths with a bit of chemistry chucked in, are talking about. If you want to find out if this book is the key to unlocking the door of understanding, you will need to work pretty hard at it. The epilogue, entitled the death of stars, comes with a health warning; fair enough, but if it needs that, its certainly not for the man in the street. It left me quite numb and reaching for the gin.
If you are ready for this sort of stuff and I quote p177 "Dont be fooled into thinking there is something tricky going on." (You cannot be serious!!!) "All we are doing is writing down in a fancy shorthand something we already knew: take the clock at X3 and time zero and figure out by how much to turn and shrink it corresponding to the particle making the journey from X3 to X at some time T later and then repeat that for all of the other time-zero clocks and finally add all of the clocks together according to the clock-adding rule".
I surrender! you may be ready for this, but I am not. I gave it a three because I guess he does know what he is talking about. But I am still baffled.
on 11 February 2012
As someone who has no scientific or maths background, although I do have a degree in Philosophy, I found this book very difficult to enjoy, let alone understand!
I would guess that it was written primarily for physics or maths undergraduates, certainly if you ignore the maths as the authors often advise there is not enough written explanation to carry the "story" forward in any interesting way.
Surely with a subtitle "everything that can happen does happen" the story cannot fail to be interesting, but unfortunately I didnt grasp it, and I didnt find it well written, at least not for the layman. I would recommend the authors check out Simon Singh's Big Bang to see how complex science can be both informative and exciting to read.
on 21 November 2013
Mmmm...with the name of such a well-known TV personality on the cover, this book will probably disappoint many who are looking for a popular "explanation" of quantum mechanics (if such a thing were possible). I may be wrong, but I get a strong impression that the book is culled from lecture notes by the other author, with the name of the popular guy added chiefly to expand the probability wave function of the sales. But perhaps I am too cynical.
I'm a retired Electronics Engineer, so I'm reasonably familiar with wave theory,Fourier analysis,vectors and the like, and it was reassuring to know that abstract probability waves could be treated in a very similar way to any electromagnetic waves such as light or sound waves. The authors choose to represent their amplitude and phase by "clocks" (why don't they just call them "vectors"?)and with great enthusiasm spend rather a lot of tedious time manipulating them. I think it would be better if they had concentrated on expounding the principles and leaving out much of the calculation. As an oldie, I am too mentally lazy to follow such detail, and I suspect I am not alone in this respect among potential readers. It is not that the individual steps are so difficult to follow; it is more that it is hard to retain all that has gone before when taking the next step. I do blame the authors for the densely packed way they present the information; I have recently read John Gribbin's book "In Search of Schroedinger's Cat", which I found gives a much more digestible overall view of the subject. So I would not recommend the book under review to the layman in search of an easy introduction to quantum mechanics.
on 4 December 2011
Any review of this book probably needs to be prefaced with a declaration of the reviewer's academic credentials, so I have to declare up front 'A' level physics and a PhD in mathematics. I think this is relevant rather than a misguided attempt at trumpet blowing because one's familiarity with certain concepts inevitably colours judgement of a book that does to some part attempt to engage the reader with the nuts and bolts of a difficult subject rather than resort entirely to hand waving and analogy.
Factual matters first; this is a short (200 pages) book whose mission is to provide a reader not versed in mathematics or physics beyond GCSE level (or less) an insight into the behaviour of the universe at the level of the very small. There are difficult but rather beautiful concepts here, and the authors are attempting to convey the essence of those concepts in a way that requires some effort on the part of the reader; clearly a detailed mathematical approach is going to leave all but a small percentage of people lost, but in order to talk sensibly about the subject at all does at least require some acknowledgement of the underlying maths.
As one of the core concepts that needs to be addressed in discussing quantum mechanics is that of complex numbers and Hilbert spaces, the authors have opted to represent this using the notion of one-handed clocks. This is where I can only guess as to whether someone who has never dealt with complex numbers will find this approach more or less confusing than the underlying maths; with my background I found that I was constantly translating the clock concept in my head to try and understand what the authors were actually getting at. Personally I would have preferred a more direct approach; e.g. define a complex number, explain how they are added and multiplied and then use that, but I can understand I'm probably in the minority here.
Overall I found the book very interesting; what I particularly admired was that the authors provided a real insight into why the seemingly bizarre concepts of quantum mechanics can not only explain behaviour at the micro level, but also how those concepts "smooth out" into the more familiar behaviour of objects at our scale (e.g. why we "don't fall through the floor" if the vast proportion of any atom is "empty space").
Full marks to the final chapter too, where the authors do a little bit of mathematics and mathematical reasoning to derive the maximum mass of a star than will not form a black hole. For those that can stick with it, this gives a genuine taste of what it feels like to embark upon a proper 'proof' of something.
I also find the concept of a book that really challenges a lay readership to deal with something unfamiliar and difficult to be very refreshing. Too much information (scientific, political, financial etc.) is presented with a lowest common denominator
approach, treating you as someone too stupid to deal with anything but the simplest concepts. This book, and The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe are honourable attempts at countering that.
on 18 September 2012
I've been reading books on quantum theory ever since I got my hands on Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time', back in the early 90s. Interesting in his acknowledgements at the front of this book he said "Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales." If only Cox and Forshaw had taken this to heart. I just couldn't keep up with this. They lost me on the clock analogy at the beginning and then the wretched clocks just kept reappearing like one of those pc error messages that refuses to go away. And the equations - ugh - far too much for my poor brain to cope with. Maybe if you sit down and concentrate hard you might get it, but this was my bedtime reading, and it just got me to sleep in double quick time (which I suppose is a recommendation in itself). I wanted a book that gave me an overview of the findings of quantum theory, but it presupposes you know all that and tells you how quantum theory actually works. Too technical for me I'm afraid but if you can cope with the maths, you may get more out of it.
This is an important book. It is important for everybody to gain some understanding of quantum physics, because quanta seem to be the ultimate building materials of the universe. The authors are not just particle and theoretical physicists, they are professors of these subjects. In other words they are both experts and teachers, so we have every chance to learn if we want to. Brian Cox (43 apparently but looking half of that) is well known from his TV series, and its popularity may have found this book some readers. However anyone still to take the plunge is advised that while the book may be considered a primer it is no noddy-guide. To be treated seriously at any level, a subject like this requires effort from the student. The style is relaxed, but in no way patronising, and the authors have even jettisoned the advice that Hawking was given by his publisher to go easy on equations. They recognise fully, and emphasise clearly, that the world of quantum physics is or can seem to be counter-intuitive. To understand it we have to take leave of our senses, so to speak, because they will not prove a reliable guide. All we have to guide us is our brains.
The dust-cover states that this is our most up to date picture of reality. The authors themselves go a lot further. Discussing Newton's Laws of Motion they say `Newton's laws are heading for the bin because they have been exposed as only approximately correct...The laws of quantum theory replace Newton's Laws.' Also `...the very notion of force is absent from quantum theory.' Well, not entirely. They can hardly avoid reference to the strong or weak atomic force or the electro-magnetic force, and right up to the end we find the F-word here or there, e.g. on p230 `it takes a force to reverse the momentum of an electron.' If the authors were politicians this would no doubt qualify as `quoting them out of context' and they could issue `clarifications', but a little clarification would actually be helpful. I suppose `approximately correct' gets the meaning across approximately. `Force' can hardly be a redundant hypothesis like the ether, but the notion does not describe quantum phenomena accurately, whereas quantum phenomena allegedly describe the entire cosmos. The authors don't appear to overstate the stage of knowledge and understanding that has been attained at the leading edge, in particular black holes are admitted to be a mystery in the absence of a quantum theory of gravity. I could not help reflecting that about 30 years ago Stephen Hawking expected to have got the full story of the universe in about 30 years, so I'm waiting eagerly for the missing bits any time.
I also recall a remark in one of Arthur C Clarke's stories about the detour through chemistry and mechanics before reaching the ultimate reality of physics, or words to that effect. The picture built up from different standpoints is persuasive - we really have crossed a Rubicon, so what is still being taught at school-level? Even senior citizens ought to be educating ourselves in realities that are no longer all that new, let alone young minds. I was struck as I read through the book by just how long some of the basic concepts of quantum theory have been around. Planck's Constant dates as far back as 1900, for example: it was in 1913 that Bohr `published the first quantum theory of atomic structure'; and some of the big names e.g. Pauli, Heisenberg and Schroedinger did their most famous work in the 20's. Surprisingly, it is much more recently that there has been a coherent explanation of solid matter made out of atoms that consist mainly of empty space, the reason being that Pauli's Exclusion Principle, by which no two identical electrons can occupy the same space, gives stability to atoms. On a similar tack, the reason why there is a universe at all rather than just a fog of atoms is covalent bonding, which allows single atoms to combine into molecules. I am glad incidentally that the book avoids the expression `the illusion of solidity' that Cox used in one of his TV shows. Illusions are e.g. mirages, conjuring tricks, that kind of thing. Solidity of matter is a sense-percept, it is the way in which certain types of matter, made out of largely empty atoms, are perceived with the organs we have been given for perceiving, and it is perfectly `real' and perfectly solid.
Very comforting and reassuring, that. However I would advise other readers, unless they have a natural affinity for the subject, to expect to have their `common sense' put under some strain. An electron wave, for instance, is not like a water wave, a wave of water molecules, but a computation of the probability of finding a given electron in such-and-such a place. Nothing in the theory forbids electrons from having position without magnitude, (as a certain pompous official was characterised by Rutherford.) How this scenario is compatible with mass is something that is kept from us until late on. Newton could not define mass, but it can be done under quantum theory, or so they tell us.
A couple of minor pedantries. `Quantum' does not necessarily denote discrete packets, although that is the sense exclusively used in quantum physics. All the word means in origin is `amount' - any old amount. `Phase' is derived from a Greek word of very infrequent occurrence seemingly meaning `disclosure'. In English the word has been used for a series of successive appearances like the phases of the moon, and thence in the special technical sense, but the word in origin does not have to mean anything so specific. Otherwise a great book, whether or not you want to bother with the very understandable bit of showing off that the authors do in the Epilogue, or whether you think that semiconductors and transistors are as interesting as the secret of the universe.
I will be honest, I don't have any qualification this subject, but I do have a deep desire to understand it.
I read the book 'why does e=mc2 and why should we care' and there were points in that where I really struggled to keep up. I found the same with this, but I was getting lost more often and having to re-read pages. Now I guess that is the way it is, you can't pick up a reference book on human biology and expect to be a surgeon at the end of it. So part of me is saying 'Did you expect to understand quantum physics by reading one book?' - Of course not, but I was hoping for a better understanding. Maybe I am just a bit dull, but I felt that I was out of my depth for the best part of the book. What I should really do it try to learn to walk first.
There may be some who will argue that I shouldn't put the book down because I don't understand it. I kind of agree because you can't pick up a book on advanced computer programming and then argue that the book is no good based on the fact that you can't write a programme at the end of it. However, the reason I got this is because some of the marketing material I have seen gives the impression that it was explained in simpler layman's terms, which I don't think it is. I can't argue that my understanding has improved slightly, but there is a lot of material that I just didn't follow and spoilt the book for me. If like me you need to take baby steps, then look around before delving into this. I might try http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1851687793 (How to teach quantum physics to your dog) it is half the price and worth a shot.
Maybe the book should be marketed a bit more like the computer programming books with a 'Who this book is for' opening and explain what level of understanding you need before buying it.