Monday 26 March 2012

Book Review: "The Quantum Universe" by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw

Okaaaay. They say it's not a textbook. I would beg to differ.

I'd say that for anyone doing a degree course in physics with Quantum Mechanics, then it would be considered a 'primer.' And a bloody good one at that.

It's not that it's not easy to read.
Not for me. But then I do have a history of delving into Quantum Mechanics. And I don't have any serious mathematical knowledge. But I'm somewhat familiar with the history and maths of some of the equations.

I would just say this:
"If you have a casual interest in Quantum Mechanics, then I suggest that you'll be lost in 5 seconds from starting the book."
If you have any sense of the scale of the issues involved in trying to accurately model a single hydrogen atom, not a molecule I might add, but an atom, then you'll appreciate this book.

It wonderfully details how wave functions trap electrons in probability states such that they are unable to flit all over the universe, observable or not. It wonderfully explains how one can extrapolate from a single hydrogen atom to the death of stars, but one thing it is not, is a casual read. De Broglie and Schrodinger et al are called upon with regularity which will confound the casual reader.

Sometimes one has the impression that the writers proceed like this:
"First get your box of matches. Here they are. Now we use this equation. And Voila! Here's a box girder bridge."
Wait. What?

I loved it as it answered some thorny questions I had regarding quantum fluctuations, wave functions (standing waves and potential traps and so on) and what not. It also covered some of the possibilities of the Higgs field. It explained in exquisite detail how transistors work at the sub-atomic level.

What it didn't cover in detail, which I consider lamentable and saddening given the available literature, is the exact mechanism by which the 'fields', in particular, QFT, explain just exactly how an electron 'knows' how to flow in a path from one pole to another in a magnet. Is it 'spin?' Inflaton field? What? Maybe I just missed it.

What about the possibility that all 'electrons' are super-positions of a underlying 'inflaton' (or whatever) field such that all particles are but one shadow on the wall of a super dimensional wavicle? No FTL required if it exists in 13 dimensions... But I digress.

If you are versed in maths of physics, then by all means, go buy the book and bask in the reflected glory of two exceedingly bright physicists and very, very talented writers. If you think 'quantum mechanics' is a catchall for weird stuff in a vacuum, then don't buy this book. Otherwise it'll take pride of place next to that other book you bought "A Brief History of Time."

If you even vaguely understand what I've been blathering about, then go buy the book. It's waaaay cool.

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