WHAT IS REAL? THE UNFINISHED QUEST FOR THE MEANING OF QUANTUM PHYSICS – Adam Becker (2018)

Let me start with the blurb to give you some context:

“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.



Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews. Here‘s an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

The author index includes my fiction reviews, and here are my favorite lists – including a list of favorite non-fiction.

23 responses to “WHAT IS REAL? THE UNFINISHED QUEST FOR THE MEANING OF QUANTUM PHYSICS – Adam Becker (2018)

  1. I’m all for popular science books—not just for non-scientists like me but also for scientists from differing disciplines—but only if they’re clear and honest, as this one from your review appears to be.

    As so many of the concepts behind quantum physics comes across either as mumbo-jumbo or obscurantism to me this could be the title that helps throw a light into the darker recesses of my brain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some might come across as mumbo-jumbo indeed, but the strange thing is the theory works in practice, both as a prediction tool, and as its principles have given us so much new technology.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No professional physicist cares about the foundations of QM…But I agree it’s very important. But no one cares what we think…lol. Nowadays it’s all about QFT …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Professional physicists don’t care about the ultimate reality. It’s not an issue. The only game in town is an epistemologic one. That’s what gives grants…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Intriguing! Thanks for bringing this up!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If anyone wonders what is real, I will be more than happy to punch them in the kidneys. I’ve found the only thing more real than that is a hard kick in the balls. But since half our planet’s population doesn’t have the balls to get kicked (hahahaa), a kidney punch is something that we can all come together over.

    Bormgans, this doesn’t apply to you, because this is your blog. But if at ANY time you begin to wonder what is real, I’ll be there to help you realize the pain 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope your physical pains have lessened, at least to the degree they are not the cause of this snarky remark 🙂

      the question is: what does the electricity firing in our nerves after you punched our kidneys consist of?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, the cause of the snark is because I’ve been reading some other ivory tower bs that just makes me shake my head (theological, how many angels on the head of a pin kind of thing) but it all springs from the same place.

        Only someone who doesn’t have to worry about kidney punches has the luxury of thinking like that. I realize there are people who think a thought out to its extreme end but I have found most of those people are living a life so safe and padded that they wouldn’t know reality if it kidney punched them.
        I realize I am being very dismissive but I really don’t know how else to react to people who simply cannot or will not accept what their senses are telling them because of an “idea”.

        Because those people don’t live that out. They make claims, say big things, but they still look both ways before crossing the street and don’t try to walk through a big thug blocking their path.

        I have to go to work now. I’ll come back later once I’ve tried to think some more.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can understand where you are coming from, but I don’t agree this is just ivory tower stuff. Quantum physics has lots of real world technological applications: LEDs, microprocessors, laser technology, MRI scanners, electron microscopes, etc.

          I don’t think it’s an issue of trusting your senses either: it is clear that our senses can’t perceive some stuff that’s clearly there, they are just not finegrained enough. (And, if I can be the devil’s advocate here: we can’t perceive God with our senses either.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • i concur that the applications of said questions can lead to all sorts of good things for us. And I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the Navel Gazing that gets to me.
            And the attendant “it’s not real” attitude, much like what you exhibited by your question about pain. Because that kind of disconnect leads to a lot of very bad things.
            Not accusing you of being a heartless psycho 😀 just saying that navel gazing leads to that kind of attitude.

            As for God, that’s one of the very reasons that Jesus came in the flesh. The bridge between God and humanity. But even outside of that, I’d say the Bible is filled with humans and God Himself interacting.

            And I tend to say this each time, but I really do enjoy our interactions since we come from such different directions 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • I think the title of the book is somewhat misleading, as the author (nor myself) doesn’t hold the position that what we see is not real, not at all. The book only tries to make sense of how to interpret the microscopic/quantum world – not claiming that the regular world is not real, but asking the question of what could be an interpretation of certain theories that have proven real world impact. The question “what is real?” should be understood like that. I don’t think Becker is navelgazing at all, but I agree it might come across that way because of the title. So it is not about a disconnect, but on the contrary, in search of a connection between our senses (both our physical ones as our extended senses like telescopes, microscopes and particle colliders) and our reasoning (both theories with real world impact like relativity & quantum, as speculative theories that might or might not prove to have an impact later on).

              Viz. God: I understand what you say, and I don’t doubt the existence of Jesus at all, but if it comes to trusting (only) your senses, than you have to admit that the divinity of Jesus isn’t something we can observe nowadays, just as we haven’t observed interactions with God and humans for quite some time. I have no problem with people that trust the Bible 100% as an authoritative source, but as far as I can see that trust is not based on your senses, but on a leap of faith. Again, I think I already said this on another occasion, I have no problem with that what so ever, as trust in science, or logic, or merely our senses, or whatever, in the end also is also a leap of faith (Willard Quine could say stuff here), and science can’t explain the miracle that is existence either, and probably never will. The difference between science and religion however is that once you have made the leap to trusting science, one can empirically test & debate theories, whereas religion isn’t really testable, so to say (even though it has internal & external debates).

              I enjoy these exchanges too, thanks for mentioning that explicitly!

              Liked by 1 person

  6. This went straight on my TBR. I’d also like to see something about how our assumptions of dimensions and time color our interpretations of the universe. Some cultures have a different concept of time, non-linear, or even no time at all. How this would feed into the quantum theory?
    As for that Einstein remark, he was far from the first to say this, though maybe his is snappier and more anecdotal than what sociologists have been claiming for over a century 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool! I always love it when these reviews have real world effects. Let me know what you thought of it, if you get there eventually.

      As for the matter of time, Brain Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (published in 2003) actually tackles that question, and gives an overview of the birth and basic principles of special and general relativity and quantum mechanics using the question whether time has a direction. It’s a bigger book than this though (about 600 pages vs 380), and it’s also much more science heavy – even though it is meant for a lay audience too. (I think a good reading order would be Becker first, and Greene second, as having read Becker will make Green easier.)

      Yes as for Einstein, I like the ring of it. I should search for the original in German (assuming he made that comment in German).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It sounds interesting, but I still have the Convergence book on evolution on my TBR. I’ll be tackling that one first for the non-fiction slot. I appreciate you highlighting non-fiction because I tend to forget about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! Curious about your thoughts on Convergence as a biologist.

      I have a few non-fiction books lined up to read, so there is more to come. I think I’ll end up reading a bit more non-fiction this year as I did last year. I have the feeling I’ll evolve to a ratio of about 4 or 5 fiction books to 1 non-fiction book, where that used to be 10-15 to 1. I should also change the baseline of the blog someday, as I hardly seem to read fantasy anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. Nice👍
    For imaging physics please visit and follow:http://conceptualphysics.science.blog/

    Like

  10. Qunatum computing is proved to be a reality, here no need of any spooky action or entanglement .There is a great verse saying that do not spend time on unsolved mysteries.

    Liked by 1 person

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