Oh physics’, Sir Isaac Newton once exclaimed, ‘preserve me from metaphysics!’ Since the establishment of the modern scientific method, men and women like Newton have tried their utmost to avoid mixing fact with too much philosophy. So the last thing I was expecting when I picked up ‘The Quantum Universe’ was to be presented with an existential crisis. But life, as authors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw would probably agree, never ceases to amaze.
Their book is a distillation of one the most mysterious, misused and maligned scientific theories in history: quantum mechanics. Over 250 crisp, precise pages, Cox and Forshaw traverse the theory, from its genesis in Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity and Planck’s work on black bodies up to the present. Alongside history, there’s explanation. Using the simple picture of quantum particles as clocks of changeable sizes and times, and of waves as packets of clocks, they detail this trickiest of ideas. It’s beautiful and, above all, comprehensible. By the end of the book, it seems perfectly natural to be able to calculate the size limit for stars to become white dwarves from the mass of a proton and the speed of light.
If that all sounds way above your pay grade, think again. I’ve been wrestling with quantum theory for several years, and this is the simplest, most accurate treatment I’ve read. It’s not easy. At several points the authors stop and ask you to read paragraphs again to make sure you’ve understood. But that approach, the guiding hand, is perfect. Without being patronising, the authors show that they get how confused you’re likely to be at the idea of, for instance, electrons travelling back in time or particles exploring the entire universe in an instant. (That last one was what gave me my existential crisis: for a couple of paragraphs I was quite worried about bits of me wandering off.) Best of all, though, they never shirk on the detail or ask you to take things on trust. They build from the bottom up, and the result is a skyscraper.
I’d like to end on a cheesy, etymological note. ‘Science’ comes from the Latin ‘scire’, which means ‘to know’. (If you knew that already, well done, scientist.) One of its great ironies is that its complexity creates an air of impenetrability. Past a point, comprehension seems impossible. And that’s not just true of your average Spinebreaker. One respected quantum physicist switched to cosmology a few years ago because the maths was just too hard. Books like ‘The Quantum Universe’ help to reverse the trend. They take a fair bit of thinking, but the reward is knowing. The reward is a revelation.
And who doesn’t love that?