57 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on 2 January 2007
I will admit that the title of this book grabbed me straight away. Having been self-studying quantum physics and evangelistically telling friends and anyone who would listen about the wonderful world of the sub-atomic, i thought a general reader on the subject would be good for 'summing up' etc.
In this regard Al-Khalili does not disappoint. The historical progress of thought from the world of classical (Newtonian) physics through the golden age where physics and philosophy walked uneasily hand-in-hand during the 1920's and 30's and the rise to prominence of the 'greats' of theoretical physics - Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, et al - is very well and clearly documented and engagingly presented.
The vibrancy of the crashing principles and ideas of quantum mechanics and the birth of subatomic theory is fascinating in itself, but it is Al-Khalili's sheer enthusiasm for the truly strange nature of the universe at the quantum level that is most infectious. This can often lead to hints of "no, look how weird this is!" but for the most part, the ideas are clearly presented and logically presented without resorting to jingoism and tenuous metaphor.
The only place the book really falls down is in its layout in this edition. Often very key principles are interrupted by small fly out boxes or spin-off articles within a chapter which can lead your train of thought to go "ooh, hang on, i better read that, it looks interesting" which can really wreck your train of thought on the main chapter text.
These articles are always interesting and are often practical examples of current research into matters being discussed within the chapter, often by prominent current researchers - it's just the layout that suffers a little.
If you are looking for a good introduction to quantum superposition, wavefunction, subatomic structure, the nature of energy and particles, quantum tunnelling, uncertainty principle, non-locality, relativity etc then this book is a very good place to start.
Strangely, my friend is reading Brian Greene's book "The Fabric of the Cosmos" at the mo and so the interruptions are often longer than just having to avoid interim articles as discussion flips between singularity and unification at the quantum level, so i shouldn't be so hard on Dr Al-Khalili really!
A good investment, particularly for the new quantum agers who are currently entralled by Doctor Who!
32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 17 September 2007
As other reviewers have pointed out, "Quantum: A guide for the perplexed" is a superbly readable and entertaining introduction to the field of quantum mechanics. It is highly suitable for those, like me, whose knowledge of mathematics and physics is not particularly advanced.
Quantum physics being what it is, I half-expected the book to be quite difficult and dry but this is 100% not the case. Although some of the theories are tricky to grasp, the author uses a great set of analogies (along with some clever and very colourful diagrams) to convey their meaning. There is plenty of humour to keep you going as well.
After finishing the book, I'll come clean and admit that I am still not sure exactly what a wavefunction really is (then again, I'm not sure anyone does) but I do feel that I climbed a couple of rungs up the ladder of understanding. But I definitely now know what a quantum leap is and I learnt about something I had never heard of before, namely quantum tunnelling' (and why it is relevant to everyday life). I also certainly now understand the significance of what happens in the famous double-slit experiment (so next time the subject comes up in the pub, I can offer an explanation of wave-partical duality). Oh, and I solved the paradox at the heart of the `Schrodinger's cat' thought experiment. Of course I didn't actually solve it but the author gently led me there step by step and then, just at the right time, confirmed my growing suspicions. That is a clever teacher/writer in action !
The book is also superb on real-life applications of quantum understanding, such as in biology and semi-conductors, and on possible future applications such as the `quantum computer' (which could one day help Moore's law hold good for a few more years).
This is popular science, albeit on a difficult subject, at its absolute best and most entertaining.
69 of 70 people found the following review helpful
This is an extremely interesting book and, considering the subject matter, very accessible. The author present the ideas and theories of the Quantum world without, as I think some other writers do, ascribing an almost "black magic" side to the subject. This temptation to sensationalise I find in some writers on Quantum Mechanics (QM) who tend to present themselves practically as high-priests, allowing us, the uninitiated, a glimpse of the wonders that lie beyond our comprehension, but not necessarily beyond theirs. So, well done! to the author, Jim Al-Khalili, for avoiding that irritating style.
Also, I was very interested to learn that Schrödinger's famous thought-experiment about the dead / alive cat, dealing with one of the weirder aspects of Quantum Theory - the collapse of the wave function into actuality only on observation or measurement - was proposed by Schrödinger as a rebuttal of that theory, on the basis that he considered the notion of the cat being simultaneously alive and dead as being absurd. As do I. All other books that I have read to date on QM discuss Schrödinger's cat as one of the many bizarre realities of QM rather than as being a warning sign that the theory is incomplete.
The world, the universe, matter, time and space are all exceedingly strange things. We can only perceive them, or anything else, through our senses. Undoubtedly much lies "out there" that our senses do not perceive. We have, and can have, only a glimpse of reality. It is therefore virtually impossible for us, even in principle, to fully understand how it all works. But work it undoubtedly does. Science is a search for the explanation and continually seeks the Holy Grail of physics, the Grand Unified Theory or the Theory of Everything, a quest which may never succeed. Gödel's theorem tells us that in principle an "entity" cannot be fully explained from within itself, only from without; so to explain the universe we will need to view things from outside the universe - a tough proposition!
But we can have fun as best we can. Newtonian physics, Special Relativity, General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory are progressions, additions and/or refinements to previously held "certainties". We must remember well that previous certainties have always eventually been found wanting in small or large part. And Quantum Mechanics is simply a theory that fits extremely well many experimental observations and predictions. That's all. And for me, the very fact that it is so mathematically precise denies it the "black magic" aspect that many who write about it seem to relish promoting above all else. The weirdness of the experimental observations of the workings of QM is, in my view, due to our current lack of understanding of the physical process at work.
Quantum Mechanics is a truly fascinating subject and is treated wonderfully well in this fine book, on a par to my mind with the also excellent "Quantum Reality", by Nick Herbert.
I highly recommended Mr Al-Khalili's work which informs us beautifully while avoiding sensationalism. And when we finish his book we are left with that all-pervading sense of awe that the very existence of "anything at all" should rightly provoke in us.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Does anybody really understand Quantum Mechanics? I wonder, but that shouldn't stop you from trying. If like me you're one of those people that got most of the way through A Brief History of Time, and felt that your grip on the subject became increasingly tenuous the more you read, then this is book is a great opportunity to re-visit the subject and approach from a different angle, and by doing so, understand it in much better. It is very clearly written in an approachable and informal style that makes it easy to pick up and to read and with few (if indeed any) equations.
I like the presentation of the book, 280 pages of high-quality paper with clear, colour diagrams that really do help to understand the concepts together with a clear typeface. That may sound trivial but like walking into a house I like it to be welcoming as opposed to austere.
Now I realise that I both understand and fail to understand quantum mechanics both at the same time, and having read this book, I'm quite comfortable with that. I award it only 4 stars, but that's only because it doesn't have all the answers, not yet.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 2 December 2010
This is simply an outstanding exposition of an exceptionally difficult subject: it is exemplary in its conceptual presentation, taking a quintessential example of the quantum (the two-slit 'trick') and working, logically, methodically and at all times with great thought and care for the lay status of the reader, towards a clear and thorough explanation (so far as anyone can be said to have one!).
(Although no specific knowledge of Quantum Mechanics is needed, it is fair to say that a good basic knowledge of such concepts as what is meant by the electromagnetic spectrum, for instance, will be required. But you wouldn't be looking at investigating this subject, presumably, if you didn't already possess that.)
A book that has a rare quality of being both thoroughly intellectual and simultaneously warm and almost intimate in its personal communication with the reader, not to mention being very funny at times: the author's sincere wish to communicate his knowledge and enthusiasm shines through.
I have struggled with Penrose and Hawking, amongst others, but not this time. I Can't praise its achievement enough. Oh yes, and, apart from a few forgivable misdemeanors, the author's writing is generally grammatically and semantically good, unlike so much of today's writing, making the subject even more comprehensible.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 29 June 2014
I am well qualified to review a guide for the perplexed, being very perplexed. I did not study physics beyond the compulsory level at school but became curious about quantum physics back in the 1980s and read John Gribbin’s “In search of Schrödinger’s Cat”. I recall that I grasped some basic concepts from that book and enjoyed reading it, even though parts of it were challenging. Recently, I realized that the knowledge gained at that time had become hazy and I wanted to re-learn from a more up-to-date book. I chose this one because the preview indicates that it covers not only theory but also applications, such as quantum computing. But I feel that I know even less now. If someone asks me what I’ve learned from a non-fiction book immediately after I’ve read it, I can usually talk about some of the ideas off the top of my head. But if someone were to ask me now to talk about wavefunctions, the uncertainty principle, string theory, entanglement, or the strong nuclear force – all topics covered in this book – I couldn’t reliably give even a one-sentence overview of any of them.
The book is just too disorganized to make any sense of it. Some terms are used without being explained (for example, “alpha particle”). Information is not summarized or reinforced. Some topics seem to have quantum-tunnelled their way into some chapters. (Ha! I have at least retained a technical phrase in my brain and managed to work it into a sentence. But I do not guarantee that I have used it correctly, being perplexed.)
The thing is that the book doesn’t actually claim that it will make the perplexed any less perplexed. Maybe we are doomed to perplexity in perpetuity. I do appreciate that quantum mechanics is an inherently difficult subject and that a non-physicist cannot expect to fully understand it, but I had hoped to get something out of the book. I now notice that some of the positive reviews are from people who studied quantum mechanics or other scientific disciplines at university level. Maybe this book is suitable for them. For me, free booklets from past Royal Society Summer Science Exhibitions provided better overviews of various topics in physics.
I now discover that there’s a more recent book by John Gribbin on quantum theory, “Schrödinger’s Kittens: And the Search for Reality”. Should have got that; should have gone to perplexed savers.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2003
The best book on this subject I have read. The author makes the concepts easy to understand with excellent explanations and examples. This book is not bogged down with obscure formula, which is all too common to book of this subject. The authors writing style is relaxed and often very witty. I for one will be reading more books by enthusiastic and knowledgeable author
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 1 July 2013
I'd studied quantum mechanics at university nearly 50 years ago so I had a good idea what to expect in terms of the unexpected but Jim Al-Khalili made a better fist of explaining the subject than my chemistry lecturers had done all those years ago - and without delving into advanced maths. This is the third or fourth popular science book on quantum mechanics that I've read in recent months and it is by far the best. Jim has done an excellent job of explaining the principles of this complex field and approaches the subject in quite a light hearted way with little injections of humour here and there which make the subject matter feel less remote and the author more human. It is also reassuring that he states several times that no-one really understands what is going on at the quantum level, beyond, that is, what is mathematically calculated or experimentally observed, because it is so divorced from what we experience in the macro world, with most of it being counter-intuitive and bordering on the metaphysical. This repeated reassurance at least means that readers realise they are not alone in puzzling over the deeper significance of quantum physics.
The last couple of chapters tried to cover too much ground, in my view, and consequently were less understandable than what had gone before. Many of the points discussed were extremely speculative. Also, when discussing some aspects of molecular biology, Jim seemed to draw a distinction between what he would call a "quantum effect" and what I would refer to as "ordinary chemistry". All of chemistry is underpinned by quantum mechanics so this distinction appears out of place.
Some parts I couldn't follow, such as the descriptions of superstring theory and M-theory, but I suspect that this is because these topics do require a mathematical approach which is outside the scope of the book. Also, most of the chapters end with a short discourse by a guest author and I found these to be hit and miss, depending, I suppose, on how good each author is in explaining the subject matter to non-physicists. I'm not convinced these sequels added much to the book and it might have been better to have omitted them.
But, overall, this is an excellent book, providing a first-rate, non-mathematical introduction to the quantum world.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2011
I wish this book had been around when I was studying my QM course - suddenly all the theory means something. This is such a well-written book. Lucid, well constructed and even amusing (if you share the author's passion for physics and are a bit nerdy). I wish I could now say that I understand QM, but at least now I know just how weird it is and why it's unreasonable to expect to understand it. But it does explain extraodinarily well the ideas and reality behind all the equations and makes the whole topic come alive. My thanks to Jim Al-Khalili for his communications skills (and on his excellent TV presentations too). I wish more scientists had his gifts.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2013
Having read several books on the subject of quantum mechanics/physics, all by reputable authors, I can testify that many have indeed left me perplexed on certain issues. This arises from the fact that most are written by academics seemingly unable to explain the subject matter in anything other than mathematical terms or at best by inadequate analogy. Whilst reluctantly accepting that complex math is an unavoidable feature of the quantum world, I continued to seek a writer who could convey the fundamental concepts in a manner which can be readily understood by somebody with a keen interest in physics and science.
I have enjoyed all the TV documentaries featuring Jim Al-Khalili, so I was keen to see whether his excellent presentation style transposed to the written word in his `guide for the perplexed'. I was not disappointed and although the book covers the same ground as others, it does so with the minimum of maths and the some of the best analogies and graphics I have encountered to date. He freely admits there are many unanswered questions in the quantum world but does not, unlike other authors attempt to baffle the reader with esoteric explanations aimed at demonstrating academic prowess rather than clarification of a difficult concept.
The content covers technical and historical aspects of the subject and the text is supported by numerous diagrams and also several `box' inserts by other contributors on particular issues. JAK clearly has an empathy with the target audience which encourages the reader to stay with the content rather than dismiss it as too complicated. However his approach does not dumb-down what is clearly a challenging subject and the book would certainly be useful preparatory reading for those considering a higher education in physics.
`Quantum - A Guide for the Perplexed' will not make you an expert on, or provide a complete understanding of particle physics, but for the interested amateur it is a thoroughly good read. In spite of the typo error in the `Planck's constant' box (page 21) which should indicate a value of 6.63 x 10 to the power of minus 34, I still consider the book deserves a five star rating.