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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engaging and stimulating read, 28 April 2009
This review is from: Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality (Paperback)
This is popular science history writing at its best, a satisfyingly readable and absorbing study of one of the most important scientific debates of the 20th century. Kumar is particularly strong on elucidating the tensions between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, tensions that both connected them as fellow theorists and held their ideas apart. The central divide in their physics, with Bohr very much at the centre of quantum theory and Einstein the skeptical outsider, put each of them either side of a philosophical line that runs through much of human thinking about the nature of mind and reality. Along with Dr Johnson kicking a tree stump to verify its existence, Einstein was in the objective-world-out-there camp: `What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.' Bohr perhaps had more in common with what certain schools of Buddhism call Mind Only: `It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns only what we can say about nature.' Although the usefulness, elegance and continuing possibilities of quantum theory have meant that Bohr and his colleagues are celebrated as founding fathers, Kumar does a good job of rehabilitating Einstein as an incisive doubting Thomas who sought to show that quantum mechanics was an incomplete description of reality. It seems that Einstein's questions, once dismissed by the bulk of the scientific community, continue to resonate in current research into the paradoxical and mind-bending realms of sub-atomic phenomena.

While the Einstein-Bohr debate forms the beating heart of this book, as a non scientist I also very much enjoyed the social and biographical backgrounds to the scientific story that Kumar provides. Writing with pacy good humour he develops a fascinating picture of the often turbulent times through which these men (and, Marie Curie apart, they were mostly men) lived. There were just one or two points at which I would have preferred a little less of this in favour of more unpacking of the physics (us maths dummies need all the help we can get!) but then these are difficult ideas whichever way you look at them. As Kumar has remarked, if Bohr and Einstein et al. struggled with them it's no surprise that we should. Fortunately Kumar is a natural communicator of what has clearly been a project close to his heart. His eloquent fascination with the story of these ideas and of the men who formulated them make this book a highly engaging and stimulating read.
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Location: East Sussex, UK

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