Non-Fiction Reviews


Quantum Physics: What everyone needs to know

(2017) Michael G. Raymer, Oxford University Press, 10.99 / US$16.95, pbk, xix +306pp, ISBN 978-0-190-25071-3

 

'Quantum physics' has almost become a catchphrase such is its familiarity with anyone who reads popular science publications or TV documentaries, let alone very roughly a quarter of those school leavers in the western world: those folk who have done science school exams aged 18-19 years old. All well and good, but that still leaves the greater proportion of the population the majority who do not avidly follow popular science or who not do science at school beyond the age of 15 or 16 years of age. Yet despite quantum physics being a child of the 20th century (and so a very young science discipline compared say to optical physics (for example, we have had telescopes since before the time of Galileo)) it is becoming to have an increasing presence in our lives and soon will noticeably (as opposed to almost invisibly) having an impact on our daily lives as secure quantum encryption of communications, quantum computing and high-precision gravity measurements become increasingly common.

Quantum physics is therefore no longer simply something of exotic interest but is increasingly becoming of functional relevance to us and our lives. Indeed, it looks like our near-term future (that is to say over the next decade or so) is set to see quantum physics employed in our daily lives. And so quantum physics is no longer of relevance to the curious, scientific literati, but of daily practical import to the whole population. As such the basics of quantum physics needs to be understood by everyone if they are to understand how this formerly quirky and esoteric branch of science becomes very much the mainstream.

Now, this is not to say that everyone needs to know how to calculate the Bell restrictions of a quantum entangled pair of particles, just as not everyone needs to understand how 'n' and 'p' semiconductors function even though they are critically fundamental from radios and television modern electronics to home computers and mobile phones. Yet the average middle-aged or younger adult understands that there are things called programs that consist of code (and a surprising many know the fundamentals of HTML the mark-up language behind web pages ending in 'htm' or 'html') or that there web pages are stored on a sophisticated computer called a 'server' compared to your more simplistic home personal computer or smartphone, or that there are 'apps', computer viruses, hackers etc etc. And so it is similar with quantum physics: we need to know about the basic fundamentals of things such as superimposition, entanglement, quantum uncertainty and so forth. These terms may be some of which you have already heard or even perhaps not, but they are all set to become fundamentally relevant to your daily life. Michael Raymer's book explains all these in simple, popular science terms in Quantum Physics: What everyone needs to know.

I have to say that I myself (as someone with a background in the biological and environmental sciences) find many of the finer aspects of quantum physics quite hard to get to grips with, but the basics are understandable and Michael Raymer's book provides a toolkit with which to do this.

Mercifully, Michael Raymer does not use advanced mathematical notation (hurayyy) and simplifies things down using mid-school level maths where that is required, though he also uses graphics and allegory. So fret not, there is not even any differential calculus.

Of course a book that provides the basics will not cover everything but then there is a wealth of material out there for you to further your own studies of interest (more advanced lay persons interested in undergraduate-level physics will find much on the web such as one of my favourites the YouTube 'Space Time' channel of short videos (start with the early ones and work forward)). Raymer's book provides a useful starting point. And even if you do delve further into the subject, as Raymer himself points out, not even the experts know exactly why, or how, some quantum effects take place. We simply do not know why or even how (the mechanism(s) by which) some quantum effects happen; they just do! As Raymer concludes: 'there is something about the universe that is, to many scientists, deeply mysterious. Yet quantum physics works: we may not fully understand it, but we can at least begin to understand it and see how it will become increasingly used in our lives, and here Michael Raymer's book can help us.

Jonathan Cowie


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