“The untold story of the heretical thinkers who dared to question the nature of our quantum universe
Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity’s finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality underlying quantum physics as meaningless. A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, Copenhagen endured, as Bohr’s students vigorously protected his legacy, and the physics community favored practical experiments over philosophical arguments. As a result, questioning the status quo long meant professional ruin. And yet, from the 1920s to today, physicists like John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett persisted in seeking the true meaning of quantum mechanics. What Is Real? is the gripping story of this battle of ideas and of the courageous scientists who dared to stand up for truth.”
While What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics is marketed as a popular science book, it should be mandatory reading for professional physicists, as it is a critical history of their field first and foremost, trying to explain why a problematic theory like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics has endured for so long.
It works both as a solid overview of the science and possible interpretations of quantum theory, and as a sociological history of the workings of the field – both from a European and American perspective. There is much to learn here: about quantum science, about science as a practice, and about philosophy of science as well.
Becker makes a great case for science being a collaborative effort, and his book very much stresses that the pitfalls of human pettiness, political bias and hyper-specialization at times hinder scientific progress. Yet this is not an anti-science book at all, as he ends with pointing out the important differences between being critical of science from within the scientific community, and various anti-science pushers – like creationists, climate change deniers or homeopaths – that operate outside it but do claim its veneer.
What Is Real? is sprinkled with interesting anecdotes and stories, about the historical/political context and the scientists involved, but never looses its focus on the big questions it tries to ask. That makes it a diverse and interdisciplinary read about the 20th century practice of physics. It his amazing how far we have come in a few decades: general relativity wasn’t well understood even in the 1950ies.
The book is self-contained, and no prior knowledge is needed. Quantum theory is presented accessibly, without any math, and Becker’s prose is smooth and on point, hardly drawing attention to itself – there are very few jokes for a popular science book. It is entertaining, and at times even reads like a page-turner.
Radiantflux wrote a good review summarizing some of the science, so I won’t bother doing that. Also James Gleick did a thorough write-up in the NYT, and Ramin Skibba in Nature. Check those to see if this book might be something you’re interested in.
What this book is not is a defense of Everett’s many-worlds interpretation – as I’ve read in 2 other reviews. Not at all. Becker just presents many-worlds as one of the alternative explanations, alongside pilot-wave theory, and he touches upon lots of other possibilities too. He doesn’t choose or claim one theory to be the right one. As such, you won’t get an answer to the title’s question.
That one of these reviews was written by someone in the field just again illustrates the bias Becker wants to point out: some people seem to read this book through their preconceived lenses, and that seems to muddle their observation of its words.
Highly recommended, a new favorite.
A few notes to myself:
– Einstein “characterized common sense as the collection of prejudices accumulated by the age of eighteen.”
– Niels Bohr didn’t beat Einstein back in the days.
– Willard Quine’s Two Dogma’s of Empiricism should be more well known.
– Popper’s concept of falsification is overrated. This is because of Quine: no theory, in isolation, is falsifiable. The history of science shows this, as when “an experimental or observational result doesn’t match a theoretical prediction, often one of the auxiliary assumptions used to generate the prediction is discarded, rather than the ‘main’ theory itself.”
– Weird is not the same as unintelligible or incoherent.