The Quantum Story: A history in 40 momentsby Jim Baggott
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The twentieth century was defined by physics. From the minds of the world's leading physicists there flowed a river of ideas that would transport mankind to the pinnacle of wonderment and to the very depths of human despair. This was a century that began with the certainties of absolute knowledge and ended with the knowledge of absolute uncertainty. It was a century in which physicists developed weapons with the capacity to destroy our reality, whilst at the same time denying us the possibility that we can ever properly comprehend it. Almost everything we think we know about the nature of our world comes from one theory of physics. This theory was discovered and refined in the first thirty years of the twentieth century and went on to become quite simply the most successful theory of physics ever devised. Its concepts underpin much of the twenty-first century technology that we have learned to take for granted. But its success has come at a price, for it has at the same time completely undermined our ability to make sense of the world at the level of its most fundamental constituents. Rejecting the fundamental elements of uncertainty and chance implied by quantum theory, Albert Einstein once famously declared that 'God does not play dice'. Niels Bohr claimed that anybody who is not shocked by the theory has not understood it. The charismatic American physicist Richard Feynman went further: he claimed that nobody understands it. This is quantum theory, and this book tells its story. Jim Baggott presents a celebration of this wonderful yet wholly disconcerting theory, with a history told in forty episodes — significant moments of truth or turning points in the theory's development. From its birth in the porcelain furnaces used to study black body radiation in 1900, to the promise of stimulating new quantum phenomena to be revealed by CERN's Large Hadron Collider over a hundred years later, this is the extraordinary story of the quantum world. Oxford Landmark Science books are 'must-read' classics of modern science writing which have crystallized big ideas, and shaped the way we think.
"A wonderful history of the scientists and ideas behind quantum mechanics.... The basic history behind the quantum revolution is well-known, but no one has ever told it in such a compellingly human and thematically seamless way."
"I have never come across a book quite like Jim Baggott's 'The Quantum Story.' He has done something that I would have thought impossible in a popular book. He manages to present the full ambit of the theory, starting with the introduction of the quantum--the basic unit of energy--by the German physicist Max Planck in the beginning of the 20th century, and ending with the search for the Higgs particle at the collider at CERN in Geneva. In doing this Mr. Baggott navigates successfully between the Scylla of mathematical rigor and the Charybdis of popular nonsense."
--Jeremy Bernstein, The Wall Street Journal
"A delight to read. It is clear, accessible, engaging, informative, and thorough. It illuminates an important, revolutionary era of modern science and the varied personalities behind it."
A shimmering tour d'horizon of quantum theory from popular-science writer Baggott (Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939–49,2009, etc.).
Quantum theory—challenging, disconcerting and heavy on math—is not going to be pinned down and dissected for lay readers without a lot of kicking and screaming. Baggott succeeds, however, imbuing the narrative with important context, his own communicable enthusiasm and the instances of dense theoretical exposition mediated by historical and biographical storytelling. His survey runs roughly chronologically, starting with Max Planck's contention that energy is composed of a definite number of equal finite packages, through Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Hawking et al. the author then looks at the Standard Model and the more amorphous superstring theory. Confirmed prediction is paramount in quantum theory because it works on educated guesses and implication, with only indirect evidence for the matter at hand. Here again Baggott shines, filling in the background, sometimes purely personal and sometimes entirely academic. Those with a jones for physics will not be disappointed, but the author leads readers through the dense material—if not like a seeing-eye dog, then with encouragement to look beyond his pages.
Quantum theory may deny us the possibility of properly comprehending physical reality, but Baggott's account is smart and consoling.
Meet the Author
Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to work with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation (OUP, 2015), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the 'God Particle' (OUP, 2012), and A Beginner's Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005).
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The lecture is captivating. One needs some basic scientific background to read it, but otherwise the lecture appeals to a large audience.