The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty, by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber

A mashup of physics and culture illuminates the science of the very small, says Robert Lambourne

October 30, 2014

Quantum science is essentially the science of the very small. It is distinguished from the rest of science by many features – not the least of which is the number of books struggling to provide a non-mathematical account of what is a deeply mathematical subject. The thickness of this particular area of literary undergrowth is one indication of how deeply the notion of the quantum has entered the jungle of modern culture. The whole world, it seems, consists of those who understand the “q-word” and those who only need the right book in order to achieve enlightenment.

Fortunately, The Quantum Moment is not just another attempt to explain quantum science to the uninitiated. Rather, it provides snapshots of the impact of the quantum on culture and, to a lesser extent, the impact of culture on the quantum.

The authors, a philosopher and a physicist, are both based at Stony Brook University in the US. For more than a decade they have been jointly teaching a “quantum” elective module that is accessible to students of philosophy as well as to students of science. For general consumption, they might have simply produced the book of the course. Instead, inspired perhaps by the principle of quantum superposition, they have interspersed the chapters of the course text with a set of “interludes” that provide a different and deeper perspective on what is being said.

Many of the interludes contain direct comments on the course, and others concentrate on developing specific topics. There is a particularly strong biographical thread, providing telling insights into the founders of quantum science and those who have influenced its cultural impact.

The chronologically ordered chapters do a good job of telling the basic quantum story, from the work of the quantum pioneers Max Planck and Albert Einstein through that of the great systematists Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, and on to the interpretive arguments of Niels Bohr and the many worlds of Hugh Everett. These chapters are particularly good when dealing with the central role of probability. They draw a clear distinction between its pre-quantum use to cover a lack of knowledge that might have been gathered, and its post-quantum role in a world in which some kinds of precise knowledge are incompatible with others, and probabilities are the most that can be precisely predicted. This is a distinction comparable to that between a low-quality, poorly focused picture of a solid body, and a high-definition image of an intrinsically fuzzy cloud.

This standard fare of technical developments comes thickly larded with diverse cultural connections that range from Ian Fleming’s Quantum of Solace, to attitudes to schizophrenia, Cubist painting techniques and the many movies that feature parallel worlds and alternate realities. It is this concoction that is further enriched by the different kinds of interlude to produce the multi-level mashup that is The Quantum Moment.

It’s worth stressing that discussion of cultural references is not confined to trivial listings of obvious misuses, or even abuses, of the word “quantum”. There are plenty of references of this kind but they are given the treatment they deserve. The general level of cultural commentary is more thoughtful and will engage and perhaps even challenge the attitude of scientists as well as philosophers and cultural critics.

Just as cosmologists have had to learn that they must come to terms with their role as observers who see the universe from within, so quantum scientists have had to learn that they cannot get behind the inherent uncertainties of measurement. It is in a probabilistic sense that the universe is what it is. Perhaps the most we can do is to help develop a culture that appreciates that fundamental truth.

The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty

By Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber
W. W. Norton, 352pp, £20.00
ISBN 97803930679
Published 11 November 2014

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