Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Quantum Physics for Poets
By Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill
Prometheus Books

In a way, each new development in physics reorders the whole field, changing the context. So books that cover a lot of the same ground appear every year. Still, it's interesting that a century after the major insights of quantum physics were first proposed, the topic remains remote to many if not most people.

Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill have written a pretty thorough book for non-physicists on quantum physics.  It is pretty decently published as well--nice size and heft, clear print (though a bit crowded.)  Their attempts to be engaging, when they fail, don't fail too badly, and aren't insulting.  There's not much math, but a lot of graphs and diagrams, so you need that sort of intelligence to follow it well.

But it isn't a book for poets--that is, there's nothing that makes it a book on quantum physics that's particularly for poets.  "Poets" is I suppose a stand-in for "non-physicists" or (in the academic setting where this book is likely to find its readership) non-majors.  It could be another way of saying "Quantum Physics for Dummies" but it doesn't really have that tone.  Quantum physics certainly has attractions for poets, though probably more for the quirky words like quarks and leptons.  Those of a poetically philosophical or poetically political etc. bent have always been fascinated by the concepts, but there's little here that relates to their source documents. 

Non-physicists, particularly in the computer world, will probably be interested in the too-brief final chapter, "Quantum Physics for Millennium III."  Of all the paradoxes that quantum physics introduces, the one that fascinates me the most is the success of quantum mechanics in actually working (it's essential in a lot of electronic devices, including computers) while quantum theory is still a complete failure--that is, no one can prove their theories of why and how, and most of them sound ridiculous.  Now there's something that will interest poets.        

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