Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Epic Quest To Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect

by Paul Halpern

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-5416-7363-2
Publisher: Basic

Another attempt to explain quantum mechanics that sometimes succeeds.

A bedrock of science is that things happen for a reason. The window breaks after the rock strikes it, not before. Also, it doesn’t break because the stars are misaligned. This is the concept of cause and effect, writes physics professor Halpern, who begins with a history of science beginning with the ancient Greeks, who didn’t trust observation because human senses were imperfect. True knowledge, they taught, required deep thought. Aristotle explained a few things correctly but got many wrong. Once thinkers took observation seriously—Galileo was probably the first scientist—centuries of straightforward scientific explanations followed until the 20th century, when Einstein’s relativity muddled matter, energy, time, and space and then quantum mechanics proved that reasonable things such as locating a particle precisely are impossible—but the impossible happens routinely. Light changes from a wave to a particle and back again. Devoting two-thirds of his text to history, Halpern delves so deeply into quantum mechanics that readers unfamiliar with college physics will struggle. At this point, he introduces Carl Jung, the brilliant Swiss psychiatrist who both learned from and influenced physicist Wolfgang Pauli during 25 years of their relationship, beginning in the 1930s. Jung believed that humans share a collective unconscious revealed through religion, mythology, and art, with dreams playing a central role. That dreams rarely make sense stimulated Jung, who emphasized synchronicity, the idea that coincidences are connected provided one looks deeply enough. Thus, it was no accident that Mark Twain was born and died in a year of Halley’s comet. The experience left Pauli fascinated by mysticism, numerology, and psychic phenomena without contributing much to his scientific acumen. Since synchronicity is unprovable, few scientists take it seriously. Halpern is no exception, but he presents it as a painful example of the difficulty of understanding phenomena that seem to lack cause and effect.

An intensely detailed investigation of modern scientific fields that defy common sense.