In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics And Reality

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics And Reality

by John Gribbin

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Quantum theory is so shocking that Einstein could not bring himself to accept it. It is so important that it provides the fundamental underpinning of all modern sciences. Without it, we'd have no nuclear power or nuclear weapons, no TV, no computers, no science of molecular biology, no understanding of DNA, no genetic engineering. In Search of Schrodinger's Cat tells the complete story of quantum mechanics, a truth stranger than any fiction. John Gribbin takes us step by step into an ever more bizarre and fascinating place, requiring only that we approach it with an open mind. He introduces the scientists who developed quantum theory. He investigates the atom, radiation, time travel, the birth of the universe, superconductors and life itself. And in a world full of its own delights, mysteries and surprises, he searches for Schrodinger's Cat - a search for quantum reality - as he brings every reader to a clear understanding of the most important area of scientific study today - quantum physics. In Search of Schrodinger's Cat is a fascinating and delightful introduction to the strange world of the quantum - an essential element in understanding today's world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307790446
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

John Gribbin, PhD, trained as an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge before becoming a full-time science writer. His books include the highly acclaimed In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, The First Chimpanzee, In Search of the Big Bang, In the Beginning, In Search of the Edge of Time, In Search of the Double Helix, The Stuff of the Universe (with Martin Rees), Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, and Einstein: A Life in Science (with Michael White).

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Isaac Newton invented physics, and all of science depends on physics. Newton certainly built upon the work of others, but it was the publication of his three laws of motion and theory of gravity, almost exactly three hundred years ago, that set science off on the road that has led to space flight, lasers, atomic energy, genetic engineering, an understanding of chemistry, and all the rest. For two hundred years, Newtonian physics (what is now called “classical” physics) reigned supreme; in the twentieth century revolutionary new insights took physics far beyond Newton, but without those two centuries of scientific growth those new insights might never have been achieved. This book is not a history of science, and it is concerned with the new physics—quantum physics—rather than with those classical ideas. But even in Newton’s work three centuries ago there were already signs of the changes that were to come—not from his studies of planetary motions and orbits, or his famous three laws, but from his investigations of the nature of light.
Newton’s ideas about light owed a lot to his ideas about the behavior of solid objects and the orbits of planets. He realized that our everyday experiences of the behavior of objects may be misleading, and that an object, a particle, free from any outside influences must behave very differently from such a particle on the surface of the earth. Here, our everyday experience tells us that things tend to stay in one place unless they are pushed, and that once you stop pushing them they soon stop moving. So why don’t objects like planets, or the moon, stop moving in their orbits? Is something pushing them? Not at all. It is the planets that are in a natural state, free from outside interference, and the objects on the surface of the earth that are being interfered with. If I try to slide a pen across my desk, my push is opposed by the friction of the pen rubbing against the desk, and that is what brings it to a halt when I stop pushing. If there were no friction, the pen would keep moving. This is Newton’s first law: every object stays at rest, or moves with constant velocity, unless an outside force acts on it. The second law tells us how much effect an outside force—a push—has on an object. Such a force changes the velocity of the object, and a change in velocity is called acceleration; if you divide the force by the mass of the object the force is acting upon, the result is the acceleration produced on that body by that force. Usually, this second law is expressed slightly differently: force equals mass times acceleration. And Newton’s third law tells us something about how the object reacts to being pushed around: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If I hit a tennis ball with my racket, the force with which the racket pushes on the tennis ball is exactly matched by an equal force pushing back on the racket; the pen on my desk top, pulled down by gravity, is pushed against with an exactly equal reaction by the desk top itself; the force of the explosive process that pushes the gases out of the combustion chamber of a rocket produces an equal and opposite reaction force on the rocket itself, which pushes it in the opposite direction.
These laws, together with Newton’s law of gravity, explained the orbits of the planets around the sun, and the moon around the earth. When proper account was taken of friction, they explained the behavior of objects on the surface of the earth as well, and formed the foundation of mechanics. But they also had puzzling philosophical implications. According to Newton’s laws, the behavior of a particle could be exactly predicted on the basis of its interactions with other particles and the forces acting on it. If it were ever possible to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, then it would be possible to predict with utter precision the future of every particle, and therefore the future of the universe. Did this mean that the universe ran like clockwork, wound up and set in motion by the Creator, down some utterly predictable path? Newton’s classical mechanics provided plenty of support for this deterministic view of the universe, a picture that left little place for human free will or chance. Could it really be that we are all puppets following our own preset tracks through life, with no real choice at all? Most scientists were content to let the philosophers debate that question. But it returned, with full force, at the heart of the new physics of the twentieth century.
With his physics of particles such a success, it is hardly surprising that when Newton tried to explain the behavior of light he did so in terms of particles. After all, light rays are observed to travel in straight lines, and the way light bounces off a mirror is very much like the way a ball bounces off a hard wall. Newton built the first reflecting telescope, explained white light as a superposition of all the colors of the rainbow, and did much more with optics, but always his theories rested upon the assumption that light consisted of a stream of tiny particles, called corpuscles. Light rays bend as they cross the barrier between a lighter and a denser substance, such as from air to water or glass (which is why a swizzle stick in a gin and tonic appears to be bent), and this refraction is neatly explained on the corpuscular theory provided the corpuscles move faster in the more “optically dense” substance. Even in Newton’s day, however, there was an alternative way of explaining all of this.
The Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens was a contemporary of Newton, although thirteen years older, having been born in 1629. He developed the idea that light is not a stream of particles but a wave, rather like the waves moving across the surface of a sea or lake, but propagating through an invisible substance called the “luminiferous ether.” Like ripples produced by a pebble dropped into a pond, light waves in the ether were imagined to spread out in all directions from a source of light. The wave theory explained reflection and refraction just as well as the corpuscular theory. Although it said that instead of speeding up the light waves moved more slowly in a more optically dense substance, there was no way of measuring the speed of light in the seventeenth century, so this difference could not resolve the conflict between the two theories. But in one key respect the two ideas did differ observably in their predictions. When light passes a sharp edge, it produces a sharply edged shadow. This is exactly the way streams of particles, traveling in straight lines, ought to behave. A wave tends to bend, or diffract, some of the way into the shadow (think of the ripples on a pond, bending around a rock). Three hundred years ago, this evidence clearly favored the corpuscular theory, and the wave theory, although not forgotten, was discarded. By the early nineteenth century, however, the status of the two theories had been almost completely reversed.
In the eighteenth century, very few people took the wave theory of light seriously. One of the few who not only took it seriously but wrote in support of it was the Swiss Leonard Euler, the leading mathematician of his time, who made major contributions to the development of geometry, calculus and trigonometry. Modern mathematics and physics are described in arithmetical terms, by equations; the techniques on which that arithmetical description depends were largely developed by Euler, and in the process he introduced shorthand methods of notation that survive to this day—the name “pi” for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; the letter i to denote the square root of minus one (which we shall meet again, along with pi); and the symbols used by mathematicians to denote the operation called integration. Curiously, though, Euler’s entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica makes no mention of his views on the wave theory of light, views which a contemporary said were not held “by a single physicist of prominence.”* About the only prominent contemporary of Euler who did share those views was Benjamin Franklin; but physicists found it easy to ignore them until crucial new experiments were performed by the Englishman Thomas Young just at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by the Frenchman Augustin Fresnel soon after.

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In Search of Schrodinger's Cat 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
calphad More than 1 year ago
Since my freshman days at the University of Sarajevo, where I was studying Metallurgical Engineering, I have been quite a bit intrigued and extremely fascinated by the whole world of quantum mechanics. In Search of Schrodinger¿s Cat was one of very few popular science books published in the early 1980s on the subject of quantum mechanics. The title of the book refers to a famous thought experiment (paradox) devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger. The thought experiment presents a hypothetical cat that apparently can be simultaneously both dead and alive (or neither dead nor alive), depending on an earlier random event, and assuming that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics can be applied to everyday objects.

For those of us who are not physicists, the book covers, in a rather accessible manner (especially in its first half), a number of key theories, ideas, and paradoxes such as the dual nature of light, the double-slit experiment, the structure and the inner workings of atoms, Plank¿s constant and its history and significance, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics and its possible far-reaching philosophical implications, the Compton effect, the Copenhagen interpretation, etc. Often incorrectly depicted as just an experimental limitation, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (the central idea of quantum mechanics), is explained quite nicely (and I believe correctly) in this book. The author also gives a couple of great examples of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics (e.g., Dirac¿s mathematical prediction of the existence of positrons, the electron¿s antiparticle).

The author¿s style of writing is engaging and pleasant to read. The book is filled with relevant historic references, which I personally always find useful, as they help with putting everything in a right prospective and context. Even though it is thought provoking, the second half of the book, which deals with more speculative questions related to quantum mechanics (e.g., the many-worlds theory), is less satisfactory and less focused.

I recommend this book as an easy, non-mathematical introduction to the basic concepts of quantum mechanics, arguably the most fascinating scientific theory ever formulated by human mind. To fully understand and truly appreciate quantum mechanics, however, one has to sharpen one¿s mathematical pencil and dig deep into vector algebra with all its eigenvectors and eigenvalues. There are no shortcuts. Thus, my caveat lector: advanced students will almost certainly learn nothing new of importance in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read a few books on quantum physics, but this work for the layperson is exceptionally understandable (even though the subject matter, by its very nature, still bemuses scientists). The historical exposition, the clear logic of presentation, and the exquisitely apt examples allowed me to comprehend to a fuller degree this most abstruse of natural phenomena. The major drawback is that the book was written in the 1980's, and lacks any discussion of discoveries dating within the last 30 years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
John Gribbin's work is informative and fun to read. His explanations make quantum mechanics approachable for those interested in science.
PamelaFarley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good non-mathematical introduction to quantum mechanics.
jrcchicago on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first 150 pages of this book helped me place out of the physical science requirement at the University of Chicago. Gribbin writes for the reasonably well-educated layperson, and does it well.
richlindsey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
John Gribbon is my favorite "science writer". He is able to take a topic like quantum physics and make it not only understandable but interesting as well. I highly recommend both this book and the sequel, Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality.
Julianna_D More than 1 year ago
The book, “In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat,” by John Gribbin, provides a great introduction to the strange world of quantum mechanics. It begins by discussing the origins of the quantum, and how scientists tried for decades to bridge the gap between classical physics and the new discoveries that were being made. The implications of quantum mechanics are sometimes very unsettling, and the author this book acknowledges that. However, if it weren’t for all of these discoveries, we wouldn’t have any of the modern technologies we have today. One main point I feel this book made was that though sometimes the work on these theories was difficult, through the perseverance of a handful of incredibly intelligent people, some of the most important scientific discoveries were reached. Though sometimes research raises more questions than it answers, it is so important to keep moving forward. The concepts that are touched on in the book are very complex, but the book attempts to put them in more layman’s terms, so they can be understood by all. I found that this book had a lot of personal significance, as I am currently taking my first introductory modern physics class, and the subject matter discussed in the book follows what I am learning in that class fairly closely. Quantum mechanics are one of the five big things we are learning in my class, and I now feel more prepared to participate intelligently in discussions in that. Just as my physics class is taught with a specific math proficiency level in mind, this book focuses more on the history of quantum than the complex mathematical specifics that make everything work. This book is a great read for anyone who only has a base knowledge of math and physics, particularly classical, or Newtonian, physics, and desires to learn more about quantum mechanics. This book would also be useful for someone in an introductory physics class, in either high school or college, who wants some more background knowledge on the quantum.
Sno-Dawg More than 1 year ago
This is a very nice history book. I highly recommend this to those involved in the Quantum arena as a means of understanding the non-scientific connection between issues. Ditto for non-scientists attempting to make sense of the jargon being thrown about in the media. Other than a few scientific terms, the narrative is definitely not a science book, but rather one telling of the driving forces, as well as politics, that have occurred in the Quantum world of science. Although the facts are well assembled, Gribbon will not win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, but the material is none-the-less very interesting. Many of the interrelationships he discusses are scarcely known but make great sense when pulled together and juxtaposed. Again - a very nice history but in the spirit of Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Theorem, Gribbin, leads us to the present day and presents us with various questions re the reality of what is being done in Quantum Mechanics leaving us with a different kind of uncertainty: Is all this stuff valid Physics or simply some elegant Mathematics, akin to the ancient Greek Epicycles and Equants, that just happens to be very useful?
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