Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World

Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World

by Michael D. Fayer

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Our intuition about how things should behave is usually right in the everyday world. We see the baseball soar in the air, arc, drop, and lie stationary on the ground. Through data gathered by our senses and basic knowledge of the laws of classical mechanics, the motion of a ball makes perfect sense.

But enter the world of the

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Our intuition about how things should behave is usually right in the everyday world. We see the baseball soar in the air, arc, drop, and lie stationary on the ground. Through data gathered by our senses and basic knowledge of the laws of classical mechanics, the motion of a ball makes perfect sense.

But enter the world of the tiniest particles on earth—the motion of electrons, the shapes of molecules—and everything we think we know about the world radically changes. To understand what’s really happening in the world around us, to comprehend the mysterious, counterintuitive science of the small, we must take a quantum theory view of nature.

Like no other book before it, Absolutely Small makes the inherently challenging field of quantum theory understandable to nonscientists, without oversimplifying and without bogging down in complicated math. Written by an award-winning professor at Stanford University, the book uses clear explanations, real-world examples, and diagrams instead of dense equations to help you understand:

Why strawberries are red and blueberries are blue

How particles can change from “mixed states” to “pure states” based solely on observation

How a single photon can be in two places at the same time

Why quantum matter sometimes acts like particles, and other times like waves

Why a piece of metal will glow red when it is hot, and turn blue when it’s even hotter

What makes salt dissolve in water, while oil does not, and much more

In the tradition of Stephen Hawking and Lewis Thomas, but without the rigorous mathematical requirements, Absolutely Small demystifies the fascinating realm of quantum physics and chemistry, complete with compelling accounts of the scientists and experiments that helped form our current understanding of quantum matter.

Challenging without being intimidating, accessible but not condescending, Absolutely Small develops your intuition for the nature of things at their smallest and most intriguing level.

Michael D. Fayer, Ph.D., is the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has won major prizes and honors in the fields of physics, chemistry, and molecular spectroscopy, and is the author of Elements of Quantum Mechanics.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
How a photon can be in two places at once is just one of the conundrums of quantum physics that Fayer (Elements of Quantum Mechanics) helps to unravel. The Stanford University Professor of Chemistry provides a roadmap for non-scientific readers who wish to understand the subject but lack advanced mathematical training. Fayer's belief that our everyday experiences "teach us to think in terms of classical physics" helps him easily breach the leap from playing ball to understanding how the earth orbits the sun. But because what we learn as children "prepares us to view nature in a manner that is fundamentally wrong," most people are at a loss when probing seemingly simple questions: "Why are cherries red and blueberries blue?" While the large objects treated in classical physics can be measured without appreciable disturbance, the same is not true at the quantum level. We may take the color and size of fruit for granted, but Fayer illustrates the ways in which "the natural world is driven by quantum phenomena" with a serious, accessible treatment of a complex and fascinating subject. (June)
From the Publisher

“…appeal to anyone with a curious mind who has ever wondered what all the quantum mechanics fuss is about, and to those who simply want to understand the everyday world." --ForeWord

"... illustrates the ways in which 'the natural world is driven by quantum phenomena' with a serious, accessible treatment of a complex and fascinating subject." --Publishers Weekly

“Favouring everyday examples over formulae, he makes quantum mechanics palatable, from wave–particle duality to the uncertainty principle… book provides a useful overview.” --Nature Magazine

“From why everyday mysteries have quantum roots to how to understand quantum mechanics without the math… an invaluable guide…” --The Midwest Book Review

"Finally, someone caught up with the importance of explaining Quantum Theory in layman’s terms…does a marvelous job at uniting the various aspects of matter and energy.” --Sacramento Book Review

“…one of the most intriguing books about quantum science currently on the market…must-read for those who want to learn more about quantum theory.” --NSTA Recommends

"...lively with amusing and useful examples, analogies, and descriptions of scientists and experiments...introduce nonscientists to quantum mechanics...useful for advanced graduate students and professional scientists." --Choice

“…interested in physics and the fundamental understanding of many pheonomena explained in laymen’s terms, this book wil be the most valuable asset you will ever read.” --IEEE Electrical Insulation

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Product Details

Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.96(h) x 1.12(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Read an Excerpt


IF YOU ARE READING THIS, you probably fall into one of two broad

categories of people. You may be one of my colleagues who is

steeped in the mysteries of quantum theory and wants to see how

someone writes a serious book on quantum theory with no math.

Or, you may be one of the vast majority of people who look at the

world around them without a clear view of why many things in

everyday life are the way they are. These many things are not insignificant

aspects of our environment that might be overlooked.

Rather, they are important features of the world that are never explicated

because they are seemingly beyond comprehension. What

gives materials color, why does copper wire conduct electricity but

glass doesn’t, what is a trans fat anyway, and why is carbon dioxide

a greenhouse gas while oxygen and nitrogen aren’t? This lack of a

picture of how things work arises from a seemingly insurmountable

barrier to understanding. Usually that barrier is mathematics. To

answer the questions posed above—and many more—requires an

understanding of quantum theory, but it actually doesn’t require


This book will develop your quantum mechanics intuition,

which will fundamentally change the way you view the world. You

have an intuition for mechanics, but the mechanics you know is

what we refer to as classical mechanics. When someone hits a long

drive baseball, you know it goes up for a while, then the path turns

over and the ball falls back to Earth. You know if the ball is hit

harder, it takes off faster and will go farther before it hits the

ground. Why does the ball behave this way? Because gravity is pulling

it back to Earth. When you see the moon, you know it is orbiting

the Earth. Why? Because gravity attracts the moon to the Earth. You

don’t sit down and start solving Newton’s equations to calculate

what is going on. You know from everyday experience that apples

fall down not up and that if your car is going faster it will take

longer to stop. However, you don’t know from everyday experience

why cherries are red and blueberries are blue. Color is intrinsically

dependent on the quantum mechanical description of molecules.

Everyday experience does not prepare you to understand the nature

of things around you that depend on quantum phenomena. As

mentioned here and detailed in the book, understanding features of

everyday life, such as color or electricity, requires a quantum theory

view of nature

Why no math? Imagine if this book contained discussions of a

topic that started in English, jumped into Latin, then turned back to

English. Then imagine that this jumping happened every time the

details of an explanation were introduced. The language jumping is

what occurs in books on quantum theory, except that instead of

jumping from English to Latin, it jumps from English to math. In

a hard core quantum mechanics book (for example, my own text,

Elements of Quantum Mechanics [Oxford University Press, 2001]),

you will find things like, ‘‘the interactions are described by the following

set of coupled differential equations.’’ After the equations,

the text reads, ‘‘the solutions are,’’ and more equations appear. In

contrast, the presentation in this book is descriptive. Diagrams replace

the many equations, with the exception of some small algebraic

equations—and these simple equations are explained in detail.

Even without the usual overflow of math, the fundamental philosophical

and conceptual basis for and applications of quantum theory

are thoroughly developed. Therefore, anyone can come away

with an understanding of quantum theory and a deeper understanding

of the world around us. If you know a good deal of math, this

book is still appropriate. You will acquire the conceptual understanding

necessary to move on to a mathematical presentation of

quantum theory. If you are willing to do some mental gymnastics,

but no math, this book will provide you with the fundamentals of

quantum theory, with applications to atomic and molecular matter.

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