The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of: The Most Astounding Papers of Quantum Physics and How They Shook the Scientific World

Experts will relish these paradigm-shifting concepts but lay readers may struggle, warns Graham Farmelo

December 1, 2011

These days, when most academic publishers have their backs to the wall, it amazes me that tomes like this are still appearing. Who is going to spend £20 on a collection of extremely technical papers on quantum physics, when most of them are readily available in libraries or online? The answer would be "almost no one" - were it not for the illustrious name on the cover: Stephen Hawking.

The book's title - a variation of one of the most famous lines from Shakespeare's Tempest - announces its aim with admirable concision: to present "the most astounding papers" in the field and to explain "how they shook the scientific world". It would be a simple matter to compile such a collection for experts, who are already aware of quantum theory's jargon and its often fearsome mathematics. Yet the tone of Hawking's short introduction makes it clear that the book is intended for non-specialists - an extremely tall order. His equationless overview of the theory gives little sense of the challenges about to face his readers and almost no idea of just how revolutionary the theory was - science has seen nothing as radical since. I was surprised, too, that he underplays the crucial point that when quantum theory of matter arrived, none of its discoverers knew exactly how to interpret it.

So far as I can see, the words in the introduction are the only ones that are certifiably Hawking's. There are nine other introductory essays but none of them have his trademark lightness and authority. Call me naive, but I think the publishers should have made the extent of his contribution much clearer, as I suspect many people will buy the book expecting it to be greater than it is. Perhaps it would not have looked good to say on the cover that about a quarter of a per cent of the book's 1,088 pages are Hawking's.

Readers immediately find themselves in at the deep end, with a tough paper by Max Planck, who first glimpsed the idea of the energy quantum, although without fully understanding what he was doing. Very few readers without an undergraduate physics degree could derive much from this great paper - and the same is true for almost all of the other 32 contributions to the volume. The idea that non-expert readers could derive much from perusing articles such as Sin-Itiro Tomonaga's "On a relativistically invariant formulation of the quantum theory of wave fields" seems fanciful to me.

One virtue of the book's title is that it neatly encapsulates the relationship between the work of quantum theorists and the world they are trying to describe. Most people who buy this book will, I fear, find it to be the stuff not of dreams but nightmares, although physicists will find it a joy. For them, the title is well chosen. Thanks to Hawking's volume, I, for one, have spent many happy hours in quantum dreamland, revisiting some papers I have not studied for years and reading works that, to my shame, I have never read.

Among the masterpieces to be savoured here are Niels Bohr's intuitive papers on the quantum theory of the atom, Erwin Schrodinger's glorious exploration of his famous equation, and Paul Dirac's astonishingly sure-footed application of quantum ideas to the theory of electric and magnetic fields. It was a pleasure, too, to read the papers of Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson that developed this theory in the late 1940s and early 1950s (although I cannot understand why the equally important contribution of Julian Schwinger has been omitted). If you want to own these classics in hard cover, the book is excellent value.

By and large, Hawking has made a wise selection of "greatest hits" here. For me, his most surprising decision was to omit Werner Heisenberg's first paper on the quantum theory of matter, an undoubted classic. It is a pity, too, that readers do not have the opportunity to see Max Born introduce the now-accepted interpretation of quantum waves through an erroneous footnote. However, I believe it was wise on balance to reproduce Born's much later popular article on the subject, one of the few pieces here that most people will be able to enjoy.

The impossibility of trying to cater for both experts and lay readers is thrown into sharpest relief by the two concluding contributions. The first comprises excerpts from George Gamow's delightfully light and entertaining "Thirty years that shook physics" (which would have made a good opening article). Immediately afterwards are some brilliant lectures by Dirac that would confound many a professor of mathematical physics. I fear that this contribution will have only one consolation for the non-specialists who managed to get this far through this substantial quantum pageant: their journey will be rounded with a sleep.

The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of: The Most Astounding Papers of Quantum Physics and How They Shook the Scientific World

Edited by Stephen Hawking

Running Press, 1088pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780762434343

Published 10 November 2011

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