Science Book Reviews : In Search of Schrodinger's Cat [... Schrödinger's Cat] , by John Gribbin

Modern Physics - Quantum Mechanics

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John Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat -- Quantum Physics and Reality

            It's not a simple subject, but is presented here in as much "plain English" as possible (no mathematics). Gribbin explains the most difficult to visualize concepts and the most controversial issues in quantum physics. Illustrated with sketches.

            He writes a survey of the development of the atomic model and the gradual unification of the wave and particle theories of light. The section called "What's h?" explains Planck's constant. Correcting a common misconception, he explains why E=mc2 isn't the complete form of Einstein's equation (page 83). Going further, some of the additional topics the book covers are the "particle zoo" [page 127], Feynman's concept of quantum electrodynamics [QED] (the quantum theory of electromagnetism) [163], "paradoxes and possibilities" and the implications of the Copenhagen interpretation (177...], and the "many worlds" hypothesis [235], the Schrodinger's cat (Schrödinger's cat) problem [233], and the concept of symmetry in physics [262].

            Gribbin says the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is "fully vindicated" [83]. One complaint -- Unfortunately, in my opinion, Gribbin sometimes passes into philosophical idealism. He says, "If we cannot say what a particle does when we are not looking at it, neither can we say if it exists when we are not looking at it, and it is reasonable to claim that nuclei and positrons did not exist prior to the twentieth century." [102] "Nothing is real unless we look at it, and it ceases to be real as soon as we stop looking." [173] "Objective reality does not have any place in our fundamental description of the universe." [183] He even quotes an expert on the subject, John Lennon, who wrote the song lyric, "Nothing is real." [Strawberry Fields Forever] Most modern physicists wouldn't go that far. Fortunately, those lapses into idealism are few, and I strongly recommend the book for what it is as a whole.

            Quotation from the preface:

"This book owes its genesis to several factors that came together in the summer of 1982. First, I had just finished writing a book about relativity, Spacewarps and felt that it would be appropriate to tackle the demystification of the other great branch of twentieth-century science. Second, I was at that time increasingly irritated by the misconceptions trading under the name quantum theory among some nonscientists, Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics having spawned imitators who understood neither the physics nor the Tao but suspecting that there was money to be made out of linking western science with eastern philosophy. Finally, in August 1982 the news came from Paris that a team had successfully carried out a crucial test confirming, for those who still doubted, the accuracy of the quantum-mechanical view of the world.

"Don't look here for any 'eastern mysticism,' spoon bending or ESP. Do look here for the true story of quantum mechanics, a truth far stranger than fiction. Science is like that -- it doesn't need dressing up in the hand-me-downs of someone else's philosophy, because it is full of its own delights, mysteries, and surprises. The question this book answers is 'What is reality?' The answer(s) may surprise you; you may not believe them. But you will find out how contemporary science views the world."

            Except for the minor fault I've already cited, that the assertion that "nothing is real" is not "how contemporary science views the world" and it is "mysticism", the rest of the book is the clearest and best written presentation of the subject available anywhere.

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