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 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.
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...
on 9 November 2011
I bought this to clarify my understanding of Quantum theory, which it did by presenting a different approach then I have seen before. It is not a text book, and has few references. The maths is basic, and I assumed that the authors had done their homework and just took the results they quoted, Examples are restricted in complexity but get the main points over. The emphasis in the book is that the key propositions of quantum theory, strange though they are, have been amply justified by experimental results, both at atomic and astronomical scales. As quoted, our modern world relies on the correctness of the theory, and the whole story is a credit to science. In the end I have improved my understanding and it was well worth buying.
on 1 November 2011
Popular science writers and television presenters have long alluded to the behaviour of our universe at the quantum level. We hear that it is a strange and mysterious place in which everything becomes fuzzy; where light is both a wave and a particle; where single particles can be in more than place at once; and where 'cats hidden in boxes' are both dead and alive until we think to check on them.
Here is a book that challenges us to rationalise these counter-intuitive statements and to understand how the physics of quantum theory allows us to explain all of these phenomena and more. We are given a humble account of how physicists look at the world; the journey that science takes when 'things just don't add up;' and how the great minds of the 20th century worked to answer seemingly simple questions, ending up with laws of nature that profoundly shaped the way in which we live our lives today.
If you have a genuine thirst to understand not only how the physics of quantum theory works and what it means for our everyday experience, but also what it means to be a physicist, then I whole-heartedly recommend that you read this book and ponder over the conclusions that it leads us to draw.
on 13 October 2014
This book fills a largely empty gap between "pop science" (where books often try hard to avoid using a single equation) and textbooks. It's a brave attempt - after all, physics IS maths, and dodging the equations means dodging the best explanations.
The result is a readable and well-rounded introduction to the concepts of quantum mechanics in sequence, using the same analogies physics students are taught - quantum clocks, sine waves - and with the maths explained along the way, derived - well, not from first principles, but from more familiar places like Maxwell and Newton's equations that most readers will have encountered before.
That said, it's not that well written - a bit florid in places. In addition, there are formatting issues with my Kindle edition that lead to uneven line breaks and spotty justification. So while the book has great value, I didn't enjoy reading it. It did solidify my understanding of the subject though (as an enthusiastic amateur) so deserves four stars.
on 14 September 2012
Niels Bohr famously said that anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.
I will be the first to admit there are elements of quantum physics that I have difficulty understanding, but then I am not a professional physicist. However, while the quantum world still fascinates and perplexes me, it no longer shocks. I have no particular difficulty imagining an electron wave, or cloud, though that may be because I have a good grasp of probability theory and of the concept of imaginary numbers. I am no longer puzzled (not unduly anyway) by the essence of Schrodinger's thought experiment in which his now famous cat is both alive and dead at the same time.
And it is because I am fascinated by quantum theory that I was very much looking forward to reading The Quantum Universe.
Professor Cox is no doubt building on the success of his hugely informative and entertaining television series, and he and Professor Forshaw on the acclaim accorded their first published book Why Does E=mc2. I don't blame them for that. The clear explanations and conversational style of the book leaves the reader hopeful of more physics to come.
In The Quantum Universe, the two physicists set about satisfying these hopes by delving into the curious world of the subatomic particle and trying to explain electrons and photons in layman's terms and thereby describe the structure of atoms. The first couple of chapters are tantalising and we begin to expect an exposition of the subject matter in plain, albeit scientific, English (maybe with a few equations thrown in.) Well, we get one, or not, depending on our point of view and scientific expectations.
The authors choose to introduce their material in a novel way, that of likening the particle to a series of clocks, the position of the hands thereon representing the probability of finding the particle at any one position. With time and patience, it is possible to follow their argument and discover Heisenberg and Pauli, but I find it unnecessarily complicated. Being past the stage of reading science books in order to pass examinations, I have neither. I like to be entertained - to enjoy the simple pleasure of broadening my understanding of physics without pain. I have long been a fan of the writing of John Gribbin and for me he tackles quantum theory admirably in his two books on the subject.[* In Search of Schrodinger's Cat (1984) and Schrodinger's Kittens (1995)]
My own preference is to picture the quantum wave as a swarm of bees in which (somewhere) there is a queen, and its collapse as the point at which it stings you. That is too simple, of course, but it conveys the general idea.
Apart from the `clocks', Cox and Forshaw is actually quite fun to read. The book is well written and occasionally, if you are familiar with Cox's television programmes, you can hear his voice coming over in the prose. The writers never patronise, nor do they make donnish assumptions about the readers' knowledge. Once or twice they break off and mention probability and sine waves. As a musician, I especially enjoyed their chapter on the music of the atoms, which discusses standing waves and harmonics. The way they build the Periodic Table is good too, as is their explanation of potential with the help of diagrams. But then it was back to clocks and my brain glazed over again.
Finally, The Quantum Universe rounds off with an epilogue on the death of stars. I must read that again as it is quite mathematical.
For the general reader wishing an introduction to quantum physics, this is not the best book to read. It takes effort and commitment. But with a broad understanding of the subject - and a liking for clocks - it is illuminating and entertaining.
Professor Brian Cox is one of our most brilliant communicators and has taken to the medium of TV like a duck to water, perhaps because as an ex-pro musician he has experience of entertaining ordinary people from a stage. Within the pages of a book his TV character doesn't come over quite so strongly, and it's difficult to unravel which parts of this introductory textbook he's actually written. The authorial voice is probably a combination of his own and that of his his Manchester University colleague Professor Jeff Forshaw, but I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to who wrote what.
In the end, that isn't important, unless you're a fully paid-up subscriber to the cult of personality. This is not a coffee table book selling the wow-factor elements of quantum physics to the scientifically illiterate. It's not a TV spinoff like "Wonders of The Universe". Like the duo's previous "Why does E=mc2", it's a serious textbook, probably aimed at those with a good grounding in science and maths - a bright A-level student, perhaps, or a first-year undergraduate. I am not a physicist. I have a couple of science O-levels gained around the time that teachers were still the tweed-jacketed, chalk-dust covered dinosaurs that Brian & Jeff like to evoke whenever things get a little too technical for the layman. I am eager to learn, though, and I like to think my brain can still keep Alzheimer's at bay by tackling new ideas and absorbing new information. I found that this book really does repay a little effort - re-reading difficult passages, pausing often to reflect and absorb new information, looking up words you don't know, that sort of thing. Maybe this isn't a popular approach in these days of instant gratification and over-simplification, I don't know - that could be the source of some of the irritation I see in other reviews of the book. Despite my rather basic maths, I found I could usually skate around the most difficult conceptual stuff - the equations, the convoluted passages of logic - and still grasp the gist of what was being explained. I might not have followed every step along the way, but I got there in the end, sort of. And certainly finished the book knowing a good deal more about the subject than I did when I began.
I'd previously read Jim Al-Khalili's "Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed" which covers much of the same ground, though in a glossier, heavily-illustrated coffee-table book-ish style. Cox and Forshaw's book is both less accessible and more up-to-date in terms of the latest advances in the field, and I felt that the two books complemented each other well in both style and content. I feel my mind has been enriched by reading this stuff, even if I haven't understood every word. And that's the point....isn't it?