Michael's Reviews > Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality

Quantum by Manjit Kumar
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Sep 30, 2010

it was amazing
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Read from November 13 to 24, 2010

This was a wonderful book. Even if you are not a science trained junkie, this book appeals as a mystery/drama on its own as it tracks the events and controversy related to the discovery of Quantum Physics. Starting with the understanding of blackbody radiation and Max Planck's subsequent definition of a physical law describing it's behavior in the form of Quantum Energy (discontinuous packets of energy)in the 1890's, the book follows how the great scientific minds sought to make sense of this new concept over the first quarter of the 20th century. One is amazed at the degree of communication the these scientists had in developing an understanding of the atomic world before modern measurement equipment and the age of telephones and internet. All they had were crude measurements and use of letters and infrequent meetings to exchange ideas. Up until then the physical world was thought to be completely understood by the laws developed 300 years earlier bt Newton. The ability to delve into the world of atoms turned that on its head as physicists struggled to relate things to accepted physical laws (Newton's laws and the Thermodynamic laws related to entropy and conservation of energy). It was much like the world coming to grips in changing from the Ptolomeic description of the earth's relationship to the universe to that of Copernicus.
There developed two camps of thought by the leading theoretical physicists of the time to explain atomic behavior. Central to this was to understand the behavior of light energy. Did it behave as a wave, as classical thinkers believed or did it behave as a particle as others like Einstein were beginning to believe. Or did it behave like both at different times or at the same time? In my college atomic physics courses, we of course studied the discoveries and famous theories, equations, and physical constants developed by men like Boltzman, Plank, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Einstein. But the book describes how much of the work was done by theoretical physicists building upon the work of laboratory observations made by other experimental physicists.
The two camps were led by the Dane, Niels Bohr and the German/Swiss Albert Einsein. Bohr was highly collaborative and prodded others while sharing thoughts with men like Pauli and Heisenberg. They developed a theory of duality that seemed to provide verifyible results but required acceptance of the concept that probability was required and that the act of measuring them affected the result. (hence Eisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). Einstein, having already developed his theory of Relativity paricipated less actively. He felt that Bohr's Quamtum Mechanics , though workable was incomplete. He believed in a reality that was independent of its observation. He famously said "God doesn't play dice." He frequently didn't acively participate in discusions at conferences but was sought out by those (eg. Broglie and Schodinger) who likewise believed something was missing in the accepted explanations. They challenged Bohr's conclusions by proposing "thought experiments" (eg. Einstein's light box and Schrodinger's cat)which were aimed at finding inconsistencies in the accepted thinking. Einstein spent the rest of his life seaching for a Unified Field Theory which would provide a complete understanding of Quantum Mechanics. The answer to the question of what Quantum Mechanics means and what it says about reality is still the Holy Grail that Physicist's continue to try to answer.
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