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What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  1,743 ratings  ·  274 reviews
The untold story of the heretical thinkers who dared to question the nature of our quantum universe
Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity's finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality un
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published March 20th 2018 by Basic Books
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James Spencer I would say not at all. Like Jon, you may find yourself wanting to find out more about some aspects of QM but it is not really a science book and to t…moreI would say not at all. Like Jon, you may find yourself wanting to find out more about some aspects of QM but it is not really a science book and to the extent some science is needed, Becker does a pretty good job of explaining for the average person.(less)

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Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Sociologists, philosophers, physicists, Ursula Le Guin fans
What is real?

This ought to be a question of burning interest to almost everyone, and yet, for some reason, hardly anybody over the age of seventeen seems to take it seriously. If you ask the adults, no one's sure whose responsibility it is. They send you over to talk to the sociologists, who shrug their shoulders; sorry guv, nuffin to do wiv us. Try philosophy, they're just down the street. The philosophers look embarrassed, and explain that yes, absolutely, they used to be in charge of it, but
Manuel Antão
May 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, 2018
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Quantum Ontology: The Universal-Wave-Function vs. The Pilot-Schrödinger-Wave-Function vs. the Collapsing-Schrödinger-Wave-function as a Stab at Explaining Reality.

The diversity of possible comments on this book reflects ironically the Everett paradigm of quantum ontology. There are as many views of reality as there are observers. Thankfully in all instances, given the depth of some of the possible interpretations, the interaction of th
David Katzman
Jun 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A truly fantastic, lucid overview of the competing theories that purport to explain quantum mechanics. Becker takes an interesting approach that I’ve never read before, which is to put all the different theories into historical context. We learn a great deal about both the philosophical context and personalities that surrounded, supported and challenged the competing theories. What is at stake here is our understanding of the very nature of reality.

Although I’ve read a great deal about quantum t
Apr 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: physics
Becker explores the interpretation of quantum mechanics. He and the scientists he cites all accept the functionality, accuracy and mathematics of quantum mechanics, but disagree on what it tells us about the world. Does it merely provide information useful in making predictions for experiments and designing new technology or does it reveal an underlying reality. Becker digs into Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation. He discusses alternatives such as David Bohm’s pilot-wave interpretation, Hugh ...more
Jun 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
59th book for 2018.

A very interesting and accessible book on quantum ontology.

With no math (!) Becker takes the reader effortlessly through nearly a hundred years of back-and-forth debate as what quantum mechanics implies about the universe we live in.

The history itself is fascinating. I had no idea (blush) that Heisenberg (of uncertainty fame) was actually a Nazi who headed the Nazi's atomic bomb project, which according to Heisenberg (postwar) was unsuccessful as he was really a nice guy who
Gee-whiz! What is real? How the Heisenberg should I know?

This book left me more in doubt about our (my?) reality than before I read it but I guess that’s a good thing.

When you hear the words Quantum Theory and you only have a vague notion about some cat in a box, that’s neither dead nor alive (or perhaps both at the same time?) but want to learn more, this is the book for you. Although QT usually involves some rather complicated and evolved maths, this text gets by completely without it. Instea
Mario the lone bookwolf
Dec 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Interdisciplinarity between scientists, philosophers and neuroscientists will eventually crack the well-deciphered code of reality.

Please note that I have put the original German text to the end of this review. Just if you might be interested.

The game of knowledge acquisition has always been played back and forth between three groups. The philosophers, scientists and, more recently, the neuroscientists. Philosophers can design the inspirational ideas for the other two groups in the field and mak
If this book were a meal, it would be bursting with such flavor that you could not help going back for seconds. Indeed I read it a second time and chose to listen to Sean Carroll's Mysteries of Modern Physics lectures, from The Great Courses series, as the accompanying glass of wine and dessert because it reenforced the ideas presented in Becker's book. Listening to Sean Carroll's lecture series along with reading this book allowed me to think about how all of the discoveries made in the quantum ...more
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Here's a brief excerpt of my review of "What is Real?" for Nature magazine, which was just published today. Please check out the full review here:

All hell broke loose in physics some 90 years ago. Quantum theory emerged — partly in heated clashes between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It posed a challenge to the very nature of science, and arguably continues to do so, by severely straining the relationship between theory and the nature of reality. Adam B
One of the best science books I've ever read and just what I was looking for after I fell down the wikipedia quantum physics rabbit hole last week and was intrigued and confused as hell - I had half an existentialist crisis because I suddenly started doubting determinism.

Adam Becker gives both a historical run-down of how the theory of Quantum Physics came to be, and an explanation of the different interpretations thereof. I tend to think of physics as a "hard science" and this was such an eye-
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Solid debate on the rise and fall of the Copenhagen interpretation and rise of its competitors like Bohmian mechanics, Many Worlds. Covers Einstein's qualms of around the probabilities and the EPR thought experiment which was meant to show that QM couldn't be the whole picture because it involved entanglement which implied a spooky action at a distance between particles. Also talks about the Vienna's Circle's logical positive being used for the Copenhagen interpretation which denied any deeper m ...more
Oct 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This reads like an edge-of-the-seat detective story about quantum physics. I never thought this subject was particularly friendly to being portrayed with this kind of drama. Most reading on sub-atomic physics is a kind of slog; a perfunctory sweat-labor with the objective of obtaining a walking around knowledge of the subject.

This book sets out the characters and the stakes involved with great narrative momentum. The assumptions behind the phenomenally successful equations of quantum physics (k
Mar 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Without doubt one of the best popular science books I have ever read. Well written, fascinating and a genuine page-turner. Highly recommended
Mar 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a delightful adventure! I really appreciate what Adam Becker has done, probably not only because of his incredible book, but also because I belong to the minority who think the Copenhagen Interpretation is not satisfying and “Shut up and Calculate” doesn’t add up.

Quantum physics is tremendously successful and although it is considered the physics of ultra-small but there is really no boundary to its incredible contribution to the present progress in life.

Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli and
Ed Erwin
Apr 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
QM is undeniably non-intuitive and weird, but the Copenhagen Interpretation(s) are far more weird than necessary, and have been used to sell a lot of quack-pot ideas. There are other interpretations, which are still weird, but much less so. The other interpretations don't require crazy claims about conscious observers affecting the behavior of electrons or cats that are alive and dead at the same time and so forth.

This book has ZERO equations and very few diagrams. You do not need to be a math w
Peter Tillman
This is a pretty good science-history account of the birth and progress of quantum physics in the early to mid 2oth century. It's not riveting reading, but I learned a fair amount about some of the scientists working in the field, and the zeitgeist in Europe then. Especially memorable was the mid-1930s, when Hitler came to power and promptly fired all the Jewish scientists in German (and later, other) universities. What a foolish move on his part, and what a bonanza of scientific talent for Amer ...more
Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Quantum mechanics is one of the most solid, well-tested parts of physics. Everybody (at least, everybody relevant to this book) agrees how to use quantum mechanics to do things like predict the behavior of semiconductors and molecular bonds. But not everybody agrees on what the theory "means" -- what sorts of things exist in the universe and so forth.

This is not a tightly focused book. Instead of stating a claim and then proving it, the reader is treated to a loosely chronological discussion of
Feb 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
In his book Superintelligence, philosopher Nick Bostrom tells a story about an evolutionary algorithm tasked with designing an efficient oscillator. After running through many generations, it eventually presented a “solution” with a strange absence: it had no power source!

At first, the engineers declared the design a failure. Upon closer examination, however, they discovered the algorithm had reconfigured its circuit board into a makeshift radio receiver to pick up oscillating signals from nearb
Seth Benzell
Jul 14, 2018 rated it liked it
I am ambivalent about this book.

On the one hand, I nearly put the book down a few chapters in. The early material about the initial development of quantum theory was all old news to me, covered (better) in books like ``Thirty Years Which Shook Physics." The actual mechanics of quantum theory are not covered in depth. The only part of this book I felt was novel was the details of how central Bohr was to how QM is thought about.

The book's novelty for me starts about halfway in, after WWII. The di
R Nair
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Terrific work not only on the history of quantum mechanics but also the dogmatic influence of Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum mechanics on Physics. This book really delves into how physicists correctly pointing out the problems within the Copenhagen interpretation were not taken seriously for decades based purely on blind faith that reality could not be explained within the Quantum mechanical framework. The 'shut-up and calculate' paradigm has been the workhorse of physics for such a ...more
Adrian Buck
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: math-sci
Niels Bohr, famous for the lack of clarity in his use of words, once suggested that clarity was complementary to truth; this suggests the clearer a statement is the less true it is, and the truer a statement is the less clear it is. Becker is a very clear writer: I was surprised that I was able to read a book on quantum physics so fluently. The way that Becker has done this without peddling us a load of falsehoods, is by not writing about quantum physics as such, but by writing a book about the ...more
Jim Coughenour
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
One of the grand narratives of the 20th century is the history of physics – the elucidation of relativity by Einstein and the subsequent development of quantum physics by Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger et al. Richard Rhodes provides a superlative account in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but there is a wealth to choose from, and I seem to pick up one or another of these histories every year because I enjoy the story so much. Becker’s book is something different, more serious despite its sometime ...more
Jul 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is a consideration on the failures of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the difficulties in advancing a science without a model. The Copenhagen interpretation states that quantum states collapse when a measurement is made but seemingly every word in that description is open to interpretation. The messiest being the word "measurement". What counts as a measurement or observation or interaction? If large systems are built of quantum mechanical systems and measurement ...more
Michael Flick
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
History of some of the confusions, questions, and controversies surrounding quantum mechanics, unfortunately without clear answers because there aren’t any—except that the long and generally accepted Copenhagen interpretation is wrong and has held things back from its outset. When the mighty say “shut up and calculate,” you know that it’s time to ask questions. No answer to the “What is Real?” question—but an urgent need to keep asking.
Andreea Reads
Aug 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Quantum Physics, Philosophy and History in one book! Not just a book, but a wonderfully well written and researched one. I came across someone's recommendation of this book while browsing through the reviews of one of Carlo Rovelli's books (having read 3 of them!) and I am truly grateful that I did.
Jason Furman
May 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book that does not answer the title question—but is mostly convincing that the question is worth asking and that we can make scientific progress in addressing it. The book is well written with an interspersing of human stories, scientific description, and Becker’s own more original analysis/arguments/interpretation of the historical field of “quantum foundations”, which is to say understanding what the weird equations of quantum mechanics mean.

Unlike most histories of science, Adam
Scott Schlotfelt
Feb 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
This isn't a bad book. It's just poorly titled. The title should have been "The History and Hidden Politics Behind Quantum Physics." That title won't sell books though. It seems to me that the publisher had a conversation with the author and said, "Let's call it 'What Is Real?' It will be intriguing and will broaden your audience so that more people will buy it. The author agreed and at the tail end of the book, figured he should probably go ahead and address this "What Is Real?" question so he ...more
I first heard about this book when the author, Adam Becker, was first on Cara Santa Maria's "Talk Nerdy" podcast, and he had such a cool personality and a sound worldview that I knew I was gonna have to pick this book up.

I was not disappointed. This is the popsci book I've been waiting for. Most books of this type take way too long detailing the history of physics and then don't have much steam or space left to talk about recent advances in the field, like quantum physics. This book does the opp
May 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, nonfiction
My mind has never been messed up so amazingly. A very inspiring book.
Oct 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Light on science but a good overview of the basic theories, history, and main characters of the last century of physics.
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Adam Becker is a science writer with a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Michigan and a BA in philosophy and physics from Cornell. He has written for the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, Scientific American, New Scientist, and others. He has also recorded a video series with the BBC and several podcasts with the Story Collider. Adam is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Office for History o ...more

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