As every Star Trek fan knows, the Uncertainty Principle states that the more precisely we determine the position of a particle, the less precisely we know its momentum. In other words, it is impossible to determine with absolute accuracy what will come out on the other end of the transporter.
Heisenberg’s principle may seem cut-and-dried to us now, but neither uncertainty nor anything else about quantum physics came without resistance from the very people who made the discoveries possible. Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, David Lindley’s remarkably engaging account of the key events and players in the development of quantum physics, completely shatters the stereotype of logic-driven scientists toiling step-by-step through mathematical enigmas. Instead, Lindley takes readers on a stroll through convoluted landscapes littered with egos and eggheads, showing us the human side of the geniuses who bickered their way to brilliance.
Far more than a timeline depicting events in an ‘A leads to B’ order, Lindley’s history and biographies remind us that reality –especially sub-atomic reality—is messy, uncooperative, and, well, uncertain. Newtonian physics kept us all stuck to the earth by gravity and assured us that, given enough information, we could accurately predict the outcome of properly measured bodies of all shapes and sizes. This type of science worked perfectly well until Niels Bohr suggested that electrons carry and release energy in “multiples of some basic quantum.”
The idea of electrons quantum-leaping was disturbing enough; it was surely worse that Bohr couldn’t explain how he’d figured it out! “Bohr had remarkably little ability in the higher realms of mathematics,” Lindley informs us. “He seemed to be able to discern where the answer to some problem lay even though he couldn’t see exactly how to get there.”
Between Bohr’s intuitive approach to science and his novel theories, it was to be expected that the masters of classical physics would line up against him. Wolfgang Pauli probably spoke for all of the old school physicists when he sarcastically remarked to Bohr, “…it’s much easier to find one’s way if one isn’t too familiar with the magnificent unity of classical physics. You have a decided advantage there, but then lack of knowledge is no guarantee of success.”
And yet, Bohr seemed to be hot on the trail of a great truth. Louis de Broglie, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg continued to peel away layers of confusion, each one revealing more about the bizarre and baffling quantum world, and each discovery giving strength to Bohr’s seemingly outlandish theories.
All this talk of sub-atomic particles that seemed to move about at will in total defiance of the known laws of physics was not only confounding and disorienting, it was also a bit threatening to the likes of Pauli and even to Albert Einstein. “Einstein had already told Born he would rather be a cobbler than deal with the kind of physics Bohr [and others] were peddling.” Pauli complained that “…it’s much too difficult for me and I wish I were a movie comedian or some such and had never heard of physics. I only hope now that Bohr will save us with some new idea.”
But salvation, if it can be called that, came not from Bohr but from another intuitive scientist. Werner Heisenberg’s moment of quantum enlightenment seems closely akin to a spiritual revelation. Having performed some unorthodox math and realized that “the energy of a mechanical system must be … quantized,” Heisenberg was both elated and mystified. Lindley tells us that “Heisenberg went out to the shore… [in] the early light of morning and climbed onto a rock while the sun rose on a new day. What he had found was a gift from above….”
Uncertainty is not a beginner’s guide to quantum physics, but a clever and entertaining recounting of the turbulent search for a new way of understanding our universe. Lindley’s depiction of the scientists involved in this search shows their moral and ethical diversity, their frailties and virtues, and their nearly superhuman ability to see what had never before been conceived. By bringing to life the individuals behind the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century, Lindley shows us the spirituality in the soul of science and in the souls of those who began the pursuit of that still elusive unity of classical and quantum physics.