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How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics

by Paul Halpern

Pub Date: April 14th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-465-07571-3
Publisher: Basic Books

The history of a grand theory—the theory of everything, aka the unified field theory—that never achieved flight and the two household names that kicked the fledgling theory from the nest before its time.

This is a solid story of how scientific progress is achieved, or not, incorporating the mindsets Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger brought to the creation and elaboration of their various theories in physics. With verve, Halpern (Physics/Univ. of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond, 2012, etc.) explores the fragile nature of scientific collaboration—especially when two substantial egos are involved, compounded by one of them being subject to spells of braggadocio and overreaching—and throws light upon the sometimes-murky worlds of determinism and probabilism. The author is generally clear when dealing with the unified theory and the quest to bring together the fundamental forces of nature, but physics in general is a gnarly topic to make clean and simple for the outsider: “Therefore, the cat would be in a zombielike quantum superposition of deceased and living,” is difficult enough to grasp, let alone “the square root of the negative of the determinant of the Ricci tensor.” But give Halpern serious credit for melding the wealth of math and physics that influenced both Einstein and Schrödinger’s work into a coherent whole—symmetry rules, cosmological constants, non-Euclidean geometry. In addition, the author imbues the story with issues that touched the personal lives of both men. Einstein’s life feels familiar and true; Schrödinger emerges as someone scarred by envy and not a little opportunistic—e.g., when he composed a “statement of support for the Anschluss.”

Halpern ably explores the clashing personalities and worldviews that had physics in churning ferment during the early part of the 20th century.