By Chet Yarbrough
By Jim Baggott
Narrated by Mike Pollock
“The Quantum Story” should not be a layman’s first exploration of quantum physics; however, after listening to several physics-related’ books for non-physisists, (“The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin, “Joy in Physics” by Walter Lewin & Warren Goldstein, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Lisa Randall, “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene, and others) Baggott adds to one’s appreciation of Physics’ progenitors and their attempts to explain everything about everything.
There are a number of stories about Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist, in this and other books that suggest the inexplicable could be explained to the ignorant by Feynman’s intuitive genius. At times, one wishes Feynman was present to answer questions about what Baggott writes. This is less a criticism of Baggott than an explanation of one’s fear of not understanding and disappointment from misunderstanding. This emotion is brought on by a feeling that the listener’s grasp may be beyond his reach.
One of the most critical elements of discovery that separates science from other ways of understanding the world is measurement; i.e. a reproducible, and comparative standard of observation that is independent of operator interference. One of the great break-through discoveries of Physics is Planck’s measurement of a quantum of energy in 1900. With a standard of measurement, physics of an unseen world becomes science; i.e. unified field theories and particle physics could be confirmed or refuted by experimentally measurable results.
When Einstein publishes his 1905 theories of special relativity, they become the basis for “The Quantum Story” which unfolds some of the mysteries of a universe that continue to thrill and disappoint humankind’s search for understanding. Baggott provides a history of the journey from Planck’s constant to the current theories of physics. Some critics suggest that Baggott leaves much unsaid but for a laymen “The Quantum Story” is a full-course meal.
Baggott immortalized the conflict between Einstein and
Niels Bohr on the validity of Quantum Theory; i.e. Einstein insists, to the end of his life, that one unified field theory will be discovered that explains everything about everything. Einstein believes that all consequences have definable causes and any theory to the contrary is simply incomplete. Quantum Mechanics (as envisioned by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) suggests otherwise by concluding that all consequences are probabilistic rather than precisely defined.
This is the table that is set to explain the history of physics. Many place settings could be agreed upon by Einstein and Bohr’s belief systems but the fundamental difference is in the predictability of what is served for dinner; i.e. Einstein believes there is a defined menu; Bohr believes the menu changes.
Baggott takes many side trips to explain some less known facts about Heisenberg’s involvement with the Third Reich and his conversation with Bohr during WWII. Baggott also entertains with some titillating stories about Schrodinger’s amorous social habits and consequences.
Fundamental beliefs–the constancy of the speed of light and the equivalence of energy and mass, outlined by Einstein, remain the basis for investigation in physics but the advent of Quantum Theory explodes the atom into 61 known particles (considerable more than the original theory of the atom) and re-defines field theories to stretch into 11 dimensions (String Theory).
Arguments about the completeness of Quantum Theory rage on with John Bell’s 1960s theory. Bell’s theory is experimentally confirmed in the 1980s, proving Quantum Theory remains incomplete. The door remains open on whether consequences are finite or probabilistic; i.e. consequence remains subject to Einstein’s belief in a unified field theory or Bohr/Heisenberg’s belief that results are indeterminate; limited within the bounds of probability. Bell’s theory also suggests information transmitted through entanglement is transmitted at speeds greater than the speed of light. This is an example of where one wishes Feynman would give a listener some of his intuitive insight.
The language of Quantum Theory is as fluid and changeable as gas in an infinite vacuum. Humankind sees the world one way and explains with language they know. Quantum Theory is unseen and humankind struggles to explain with language still in process of creation.
“The Quantum Story” is a roller coaster ride for the uninformed; i.e. one is thrilled by the experience but exhausted by the ride.