Sunday, October 25, 2009

A rollicking romp through quantum connections

Image Hosted by

Very few physicists have emphasized the human side of physics as well as Jeremy Bernstein. A veteran physicist and writer who has known many famous physicists of the twentieth century, Bernstein has penned highly readable portraits of Oppenheimer, Bethe and Einstein among others and has written books about nuclear weapons, quants on Wall Street, Bell Laboratories and the German atomic bomb project. In this book he explores the several ramifications of the strange proliferation of concepts from quantum mechanics into popular culture, theater, art, philosophy and cinema. Perhaps this proliferation is not surprising considering the bizarre implications of the actual meaning of quantum theory, but as Bernstein indicates, non-physicists have extended the reach of quantum concepts far beyond what the scientific creators of the theory would have intended.

Bernstein takes us through a diverse variety of topics and characters. He describes the Dalai Lama's writings in which he draws parallels between Buddhism and quantum theory, and this gives him an opportunity to talk about two central characters in the book, physicists John Bell and David Bohm who the Dalai Lama knew and who played crucial roles in the development of the interpretative parts of the discipline. Bernstein describes the famous conflict between Einstein and Bohr about the meaning of quantum theory and explains Bell's groundbreaking contributions that argued against Einstein's belief that quantum mechanics might be governed by some kind of "hidden variables" which we have to discover; Bell showed that any such hidden variable theory would have to involve superluminal communication and would be at odds with the theory of relativity. Later many remarkably precise experiments verified Bell's ideas, and Bell would almost certainly have received a Nobel Prize had he not died untimely of a stroke.

Bernstein also discusses the extension of quantum theory into non-scientific realms and describes the plays of the playwright Tom Stoppard (writer of "Hapgood" and "Arcadia"), who seems to have incorporated some concepts into his writing. Along the way Bernstein discusses the famous double slit experiment of quantum theory (best discussed in the Feynman Lectures on Physics) which inspired Stoppard and other writers including Princeton philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (author of "Incompleteness", a fascinating book about Kurt Godel) whose work Bernstein also describes. Bernstein also uses these narrative threads to talk about his own background at Harvard and Princeton where he came in contact with many of the key figures in the development of quantum physics. He has a clear and readable discussion of Bell's theorem and its background.

The last chapters in Bernstein's book talk about New Age-type expositions of quantum theory discussed by writers like Gary Zhukov and Fritjof Capra (author of "The Tao of Physics") who seemingly find many parallels between the philosophical parts of the discipline and Eastern philosophy and mysticism. Bernstein is admittedly not very impressed with these interpretations as many of them sound rather fuzzy and devoid of concrete meaning. Perhaps Bernstein should have also taken a well-deserved jab at the New Age guru Deepak Chopra, whose use of quantum concepts seems to have been divined from thin air.

Readers might be forgiven for Bernstein's digressions which usually constitute a common part of his writings. For instance his first chapter is about his encounter with poet W H Auden and the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr which seems to have little bearing on the rest of the book. A chapter on Niels Bohr's protege, the physicist Leon Rosenfeld, suddenly digresses into how quantum mechanics came in conflict with Soviet Marxism and dialectical materialism, and how Soviet physicists struggled to reconcile physics with their political ideology. A lot of this has to do with Bernstein's own background and it usually makes for interesting reading, but as in some of his other books, one cannot help shake off the feeling that Bernstein is trying to pack too much into the book and jumping from one topic to another with alacrity. However, I personally enjoy such digressions, and while some others may not, there is still enough interesting material in this slim book to keep most readers with a variety of interests hooked.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home