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The human story of quantum mechanics
on 21 August 2011
Quantum mechanics is one of the most successful scientific theories ever made. But it is utterly non-intuitive for both the scientist and non-scientist alike.
In our everyday lives, things happen for a reason - you place a fork on a table and unless someone comes along and moves it, you can be certain that it will be still there the next day. Not so in the atomic world of quantum mechanics, an electron might be here... or it might be there ... or over there. In fact it could be anywhere in the universe at any given time. Quantum mechanics predicts this behaviour in the form of a probability wave function. And it works.
But is this the true nature of reality?
This is the theme of the book. We have two great scientists - Einstein and Niels Bohr who have a fundamental difference of opinion about the nature of reality.
From Einstein's' point of view, an electron has a real set of parameters such as location, velocity, spin and so on that is independent of an observer. He admits that quantum mechanics does a good job in predicting atomic behaviour but he is convinced the theory is not complete.
On the other hand, there is Niels Bohr's vision that an electron (or any microscopic entity) has no reality until an observer chooses to measure one of its parameters. He considers quantum mechanics to be complete with no further need for revision or modification.
This argument goes on for decades. The book takes the reader through the panoply of scientists who helped put quantum theory together from its beginnings around 1900 to today. Scientists such as Max Planck, Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauli, Oppenheimer, Von Neumann and many, many others are included.
The appeal of this book is that it brings humanity to the story of quantum mechanics. It shows the egos, the fears, the ambition of these extraordinary people as the story unfolds over decades.
If you want a pure explanation of quantum mechanics then you should look to a dry text book. But if you want the human context in which quantum mechanics evolved then I recommend you read this book.