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On what comes first,
This review is from: Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality (Paperback)
I bought this book as a partial response to my 12 year old son's questions: "But what is infinity?" "How do we know that something is real?" He left me stumped and not a little challenged. I needed to get beyond Dr Who and thought the book might sate him.
Curiosity got the better of me and I was soon drawn into a world enriched by well drawn characters. Names that I had heard of but didn't know much about - Planck, Geiger, Rutherford, but others too, more familiar - like Hitler and GB Shaw. Others yet, I was glad to make the acquaintance of, like Wolfgang Pauli, described as a Buddha with a biting tongue. And John Stewart Bell of Belfast and Dr Bertelsmann's socks.
Quantum reads like an epic novel, with Einstein and Bohr cast as the main protagonists, with scientific truth taking the place of elusive love, an obscure object of their desires. Kumar's evocative and fluid prose describes the passion for ideas that is at the centre of the story. I didn't feel that I needed to understand it all, but understood what drove them.
But what of the science? Kumar does not shy away from the science but nor does he make it seem insurmountable to a lay reader. Boyle's law explained in a succinct paragraph is a model of elegant science writing.
There is much to commend Quantum apart from its opening up of this area of science. Kumar deftly weaves in the social and political context in which the characters are brought to life. A fundraising dinner for impoverished East European Jews hosted by Baron Rothschild in October 1930, is attended by Einstein. The septuagenarian GB Shaw toasts him: "Ptolemy made a universe which lasted 1,400 years. Newton, also, made a universe which lasted for 300 years. Einstein has made a universe, and I can't tell you how long that will last."
Einstein then speaks of moral traditions that have lasted a thousand years, and of service of life and of sacrifice. But, observes Kumar, that universe was ending `as the dark clouds of the coming Nazi storm gathered.' The previous month, the Nazis had increased their share of the vote by nearly eight times in a little over two years.
This then is a big book. A book about an icon and an iconoclast, encapsulated in one man, full of contradictions and all too human qualities. For Bohr, out of a theory came a philosophical position. For Einstein, a philosophy built on the foundations of a scientific theory was bound to be shaky.
Einstein says "..one assumes a real world existing independently from any act of perception. But this we do not know." And elsewhere "I have no better expression than `religious' for confidence in the rational nature of reality insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Wherever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism."
This reminded me a little of St Augustine's grappling with similar questions and of Pascal's Wager. There are probably a hundred other examples or more that can be cited and as many creation myths. But the ineffability of something has never stopped enquiry.
So what of quantum? Can I explain it to my son now? Well, as Kumar observes in his concluding paragraph, fifty years of `conscious brooding' had not brought Einstein any closer. I rest a little easier. In the end Einstein took solace in the words of Gotthold Lessing, a German philosopher, "The aspiration to truth is more precious than its assured possession."
For my part, I aspire to re-read this excellent book, and to yield possession of it to my son at a later date to see if he has any answers.