Maybe you’ve long been fascinated by sub-atomic particles, or maybe you just want to understand the physics humor on Big Bang Theory. When it comes to quantum mechanics, however, you should remember Richard Feynman’s remark that “anyone who claims to understand quantum physics doesn’t understand quantum physics.” It’s a tricky subject even for the geniuses.
The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw is a fine attempt to make a complex and infinitely confusing subject more accessible to the average person. To that end, they’ve devised a teaching method that replaces much of the mystifying math with imaginary clocks. Actually, the clocks are pretty darned baffling, too, but it’s far easier to imagine a timepiece universe than to decipher those symbols that stand for lengthy mathematical formulas, so give the authors a round of applause for this one.
At its heart, quantum mechanics is merely a theory that explains how and why almost everything happens. It’s a work in progress; scientists are still digesting most of what they know and have yet to prove definitively that some key particles exist. Never mind that—on its own, quantum mechanics is fascinating and, though an infant in the world of science, it looks like the beginning of a complete understanding our universe. And others.
Cox and Forshaw make it perfectly clear early in The Quantum Universe that they don’t adhere to the woo-woo interpretation of their subject. “Extrasensory perception, mystical healing, vibrating bracelets to protect us from radiation and who-knows-what-else are regularly smuggled into the pantheon of the possible under the cover of the word ‘quantum,’” they write, and immediately add, “This is nonsense born from a lack of clarity of thought, wishful thinking, genuine or mischievous misunderstanding, or some unfortunate combination of all of the above.” In other words, don’t plunk down your hard-earned cash on that anti-aging cream that contains tachyons and don’t pick up this book if you’re determined to explain the Akashic Record using Bell’s Theorem.
Scientists don’t need the mystical to recognize that we live in a magical universe; every new discovery in this field is a WOW! experience. Making it all the more amazing is the fact that learning to understand the nature of teensy sub-atomic particles gives us a deeper understanding of the larger world we inhabit. In the same manner, The Quantum Universe is presented in a series of small detailed exercises that eventually lead the reader to a clear view of the big picture.
What is a particle? Can something really be in two different places at once? Why don’t the atoms in our bodies merge with the atoms of our furniture? Cox, a professor of particle physics, and Forshaw, a professor of theoretical physics, don’t just answer those questions—they show us the science that lets us understand the answers.
The Quantum Universe is not as simple as the authors think it is—at least, not for the average liberal arts-type—but an attentive reader who takes time to think through each exercise will be able to follow along quite nicely. As a reward for sticking with it, you’ll find a bit of humor scattered throughout the book, and by the final chapter, you may find yourself as excited by the details of a dying star as the authors are. This book is an excellent introduction to the basic concepts of quantum mechanics, full of personality as well as information.