A useful introduction to the history of quantum theory for scientifically inclined readers.

WHAT IS REAL?

THE UNFINISHED QUEST FOR THE MEANING OF QUANTUM PHYSICS

A historical exploration of quantum physics, which “predicts a stunning variety of phenomena to an extraordinary degree of accuracy.”

The realm of quantum physics is extremely difficult to comprehend. According to Niels Bohr’s “Copenhagen interpretation,” largely devised in the 1920s, subatomic particles have no definite properties until they are measured. One can only calculate the probability of a certain result—for example, the location of an electron—and the very act of measurement changes matters. In his first book, astrophysicist and science writer Becker agrees with a minority of physicists that quantum physics needs a better interpretation “because it’s not immediately clear what the theory is saying about the world. The mathematics of quantum physics is unfamiliar and abstruse, and the connection between the mathematics and the world we live in is hard to see.” Until his death, Einstein insisted that this bizarre picture couldn’t be correct, but most colleagues disagreed. Becker summarizes the debate and then takes up the cudgel. Einstein’s objections never caught on, but successors have had some success. David Bohm and Hugh Everett maintained that particles have specific properties and locations, but they also introduced complex concepts such as nonlocality, hidden variables, and a many-worlds view. The leading genius was John Bell, whose 1964 theorem postulates certain phenomena that violate traditional quantum theory. Subsequent extremely delicate experiments proved him right. Quantum physics works, so most physicists don’t concern themselves with its view of reality, and the debate rarely reaches popular media. It’s a philosophical question whose major figures are not household names and whose arguments do not simplify matters. The author works diligently to introduce them to a lay audience. Readers must put in the effort, but those who persist will come away with a taste of a basic scientific issue that a century of controversy has yet to resolve.

A useful introduction to the history of quantum theory for scientifically inclined readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-465-09605-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE GREAT BRIDGE

THE EPIC STORY OF THE BUILDING OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

It took 14 years to build and it cost 15 million dollars and the lives of 20 workmen. Like the Atlantic cable and the Suez Canal it was a gigantic embodiment in steel and concrete of the Age of Enterprise. McCullough's outsized biography of the bridge attempts to capture in one majestic sweep the full glory of the achievement but the story sags mightily in the middle. True, the Roeblings, father and son who served successively as Chief Engineer, are cast in a heroic mold. True, too, the vital statistics of the bridge are formidable. But despite diligent efforts by the author the details of the construction work — from sinking the caissons, to underground blasting, stringing of cables and pouring of cement — will crush the determination of all but the most indomitable reader. To make matters worse, McCullough dutifully struggles through the administrative history of the Brooklyn Bridge Company which financed and contracted for the project with the help of the Tweed Machine and various Brooklyn bosses who profited handsomely amid continuous allegations of kickbacks and mismanagement of funds. He succeeds in evoking the venality and crass materialism of the epoch but once again the details — like the 3,515 miles of steel wire in each cable — are tiresome and ultimately entangling. Workmanlike and thorough though it is, McCullough's history of the bridge has more bulk than stature.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1972

ISBN: 0743217373

Page Count: 652

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1972

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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