Non-Fiction Reviews

Quantum Physics for Poets

(2011) Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Prometheus, £9.99, pbk, 338 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14216-2


I can see what all the fuss is about when it comes to quantum physics: honest I can. And there is this saying that if you think you understand quantum physics then actually you don't. Well I have to say that having sort of grown up with quantum physics – it was covered in both chemistry and physics A level (that's British school age 15 – 18) and then again for first year undergraduate chemistry modules, and of course it regularly crops up in Nature and Science) of which any self-respecting scientist should regularly read – quantum physics has always been there, albeit to one side of my own principal science foci. It is only when you stop and think about it that you question why is it that the quantum physics 'model' of fundamental particles actually works, and then that leads you one to wonder about what is reality…? And that's the point at which my head starts to hurt, but not with the quantum physics model per se.

Anyway, quantum physics when you do think about it is dashed peculiar especially as much of the rest of physics is more easily deduced from first principles, and if you only come across quantum physics via a TV documentary or a cracking good hard SF novel, then it really must seem extremely perplexing. That's because it is. If you are not a physicist – and let us face it, most folk are not – then getting to grips with even the basics of quantum physics is daunting. Fortunately Lederman and Hill, from the rebel colonies, have given us this rather neat book which is probably about the easiest and best way for the non-physicist who has an interest in science to get to grips with quantum basics.

I should say that I actually am not at all fond of poetry: Milne's 'How cold my toes' and pop/rock songs are as close as I get to poetry (apart from science, of course, as that is poetry in action). Anyway, the word 'poets' in the title of this book did at first fill me with a little trepidation, but I need not have worried: 'poets' in this case is used as a descriptor for 'non-physicists'. What we have here is probably one of the best opportunities for non-physicists who enjoy science to have quantum physics explained to them.

The first chapter did though (try to) put me in my place being entitled 'If you're not shocked, you haven't understood': trust me, as an environmental scientist virtually everyone I know is not shocked as to where we are as a species: if they were they would really understand, stop behaving the way they do, and we would not be in the absolutely dire global pickle we are in now! (You really do not want to be around in the middle of this century, so enjoy the coming three or four decades.) In short, if you can't see the signs of our impacting on the global system then you really are going to find quantum physics hard to grasp. Anyway, so I found the title of that chapter more than a little patronising. But I am a brave little trooper and soldiered on. And I am glad I did. For though the ground covered was fairly familiar, there were nuances and detail of which I was unaware, sufficiently so that I did not feel that I was simply reading the book to review it: I was actually getting something out of it (and it was interesting).

The ground covered includes the nature of: light, heat, energy and their inter-relatedness. We discover the wonder of entanglement, Heisenberg's uncertainty, and the controversy that led to the Copenhagen interpretation… I cannot begin to go into these here because the challenge of explaining complex science in just a few lines is virtually impossible: you need a book, and Lederman and Hill's one is just the ticket as things are in explained in as about an easy way as they are anywhere else. Having said that, many will find this book challenging: gave me a couple of moments I can assure you.

Now, not only do I recommend this for the curious, but the curious with a basic grounding in science (because you will need it), but also for advanced scientists whose expertise lies outside of physics as Quantum Physics for Poets does provide a little bit of a mental workout, albeit an enjoyable one at that. They have sugar-coated the science without undermining it, and for me that is a great test of good science communication. Quantum Physics for Poets will also be useful for those whose work involves imparting science to others, be they teachers or policy advisors, as it is extremely useful to see how others do it well in addition to the intellectual content inherent in the book itself. I liked Lederman and Hill's offering. And while I cannot, in honesty, say that I will not be referring to it on a daily basis, I can see myself dipping into it a few times a year when either I want to explain something to someone else or when I am particularly intrigued by a physics paper in the journals Nature or Science whose immediate landscape is not familiar to myself (and here the index at the back will be a help). It is also the sort of book that someone who has just left school and is going to university to read science might usefully read in their in-between summer break. In short, there should be a reader market for this book and I hope there is if my limited faith in the best of the human spirit of enquiry is to remain intact. However those whose knowledge and skill are purely confined to poetry might be better off sticking to rhyme rather than reason.

Jonathan Cowie

[Up: Non-Fiction Index | Top: Concatenation]

[Updated: 11.4.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]