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Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Quantum World by Kenneth W. Ford

As I have done before, I read The Quantum World by Kenneth W. Ford in order to prepare me for another book. I wanted to read the recently published Something Deeply Hidden by Sean CarrollCarroll’s book goes beyond a general introduction and argues for some specific theories regarding quantum physics, thus I wanted to firm up my understanding of the subject before taking it on. I have always been interested in quantum physics. However, my knowledge of it, that of a layperson who is interest in the subject, needed a refresh. Over the years, I have read articles and books that covered the subject in varying detail. Previously books that I have read include John Gribbins’s In Search of Schrodinger's Cat. That book was very good and may be the best general source of information on this subject. In fact, after finishing Ford’s book, I snuck in a reread of Gribbins’s book. However, as it was first published in 1984, the older work does not cover the latest discoveries and theories. Years ago, I also read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but aside from also being older, I found that book very difficult to understand. I wanted to read a book that was aimed at a layperson, that coved the entire subject somewhat comprehensively, and that was fairly up to date.  A little online research indicated many folks felt that The Quantum World was the best basic and fairly current introduction out there. First published in 2005, I found that the information here still current enough to be very useful. At several points, when the author indicated that new discoveries were being made at the time of the writing of the book, I googled for more up to date information. 

This work is a solid and fascinating. It provides an  explanation of all the main concepts relating to quantum physics. Though aimed at a layperson, I did find a lot of this technical. As I mention above, I had a basic, but hazy knowledge of much of this science going in. If I did not have this knowledge, parts of this book would have left me lost. There were some parts of this work that I struggled to understand and some parts that I just did not understand. Therefore, I am not sure if I would recommend this to someone who knew nothing about the subject. 

Why do I find quantum physics so fascinating? There are a couple of reasons. First, quantum physics concerns itself with the building blocks of the Universe. It is what makes reality real. In addition, I am generally interested in science. Finally, certain theories and observations related to what is referred to as “quantum weirdness” or “spookiness” are mind boggling and seem to defy common sense as well as our basic principles of reason. The author writes,

In fact, the physics of the past hundred years has taught us that common sense is a poor guide in the new realms of knowledge. No one could have predicted this outcome, but no one should he surprised by it. Everyday experience shapes your opinions about matter and motion and space and time. Common sense says that solid matter is solid, that all accurate watches keep the same time, that the mass of material after a collision is the same as it was before, and that nature is predictable: sufficiently accurate input information yields reliable prediction of outcomes. But when science moves outside the range of ordinary experience- into the subatomic world, for instance-things prove to be very different.

Quantum physics is the study of the very small. It is the study of atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. The basic tenets of quantum physics are all covered in this book. They include, the fact that many numbers and quantities that exist on the subatomic level come in discrete, measurable packages. For instance, the charge of all electrons is exactly the same.   

Also, many of the most important laws and concepts are based upon the laws of probability. For instance, sometimes it is impossible to determine the precise location of a particle, instead, only the probably that the particle is in a particular location can be stated. This is in contrast to other branches of science where things are more deterministic.

In addition, all subatomic things have a duality to them, in that, they exhibit characteristics of both particles and waves. Depending on how and when they are measured, sometimes things like electrons appear to more like ocean waves, in that they seem to exist over a large area that is moving and changing. At other times they appear to be definite points. 

Along the way of explaining all this Ford takes the reader through a tour of a virtual zoo of particles, such as protons, electrons, photons, quarks, bosons and many more. The history of discoveries and scientists is also covered. This includes information on the careers of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and many others. Ford, who is currently 93 years old and knew some of the giants in the field. 

What many call quantum weirdness is the most fascinating part for me. My understanding as well as my explanation of it all is incomplete and murky at best. However, examples include the fact that certain particles and phenomena are changed and effected by the that fact that they are observed or the fact that particles separated in space can affect one another instantaneously. This is mind bending stuff. 

I found reading this book both worthwhile and enjoyable. I learned a lot. It helped me to organize my knowledge of the subject. With that, I think that this is good book for the layperson who already has some knowledge. Having also reread In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, I thought that book was better basic introduction. However, it was less up to date. In addition, as mentioned above, this book thoroughly covered the plethora of subatomic particles that have been discovered in the previous hundred years or so better then any other source that I have read.  This fascinating catalogue was only touched upon in Gibbons’s book. Quantum Physics is a difficult subject to grasp so a layperson might actually want to try more then one introduction. This book is certainly a worthy introduction.  I will be reading at least one more work on this subject and posting about it in the future. 

38 comments:

Judy Krueger said...

Great! I too am drawn to the ideas of quantum physics and have read quite a few novels that include them, but find the subject hard to grasp. I got about two chapters into A Brief History of Time and was defeated. Now you have given me two excellent references to help me out. Thanks!!

mudpuddle said...

brilliant! i've long been interested in the quantum world; ideas like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and distance having no apparent influence on particle interactions are especially fascinating... i've read some books on the subject and have tried to get through Feynman's series but w/o much luck... this sounds like it would be pretty interesting; i've studied math thru calculus but that was a long time ago, but i'll look for a copy of it... tx a lot for an excellent blog on a very important subject that seems like an elephant in the blogosphere: carefully avoided by all and sundry!

Susan Kane said...

Oh boy howdy! My husband John studied for a Dr. in Quantum Physics. Did the oral examine but said Enough. He has a Masters in Quantum Holography.

After reading you post (which I loved) I looked at his burgeoning library, these books are there:
How Math explains the World; Physics of the Future; Physical Chemistry; The Quantum Story etc. Also has these: The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown); Good Omens; Yeats Ireland...

You two would have sooo much fun. He'll be right over after his bridge tournament.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Too deep for me! Is there a colouring book version?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - Science Fiction writers have done a lot with this stuff. I thought that this book as well as In Search of Schrödinger's Cat were a lot more understandable then A Schrödinger's Cat were a lot more accessible then A Brief History of Time.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I like your elephant allegory. The Feynman series sounds challenging. More to come on the fascinating stuff.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - It sounds like your husband’s expertise on the subject blows my sketchy knowledge away.

Brian Joseph said...

You made me laugh Debra!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Congratulations on reading Quantum World and though there might be some parts as you say where you were somewhat lost what is so impressive is how much you understood. I know I would be lost all the way through.

Science was never my best subject in school but if I were to chose a specific branch of science to read an introductory book about I think how human life developed on the planet would be quite interesting. What came before the Stone Age? Who were the Neandrathals etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - Early human development seems like a fascinating area. I bet that there are some incredible books out there. Richard Wrangham did explore the subject a bit in The Goodness Paradox.

CyberKitten said...

Oh, I *LOVE* QM. Not only is it deeply fascinating (the bits I can get my head around!) but I also find it honestly hilarious the way that, deep down, things are just so damned STRANGE. I've read a handful of books over the years on the subject and have some more scattered about waiting to be picked up. I look forward to your future investigation into this truly intriguing subject.

You might be interested in:

Life on the Edge – The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten/ Thanks for the recommendation. The strangeness is mind boggling. The Carol book really digs into some of the mind bending stuff.

Dorothy Borders said...

Physics, in general, is an engrossing and often mind-boggling (to me) subject. I, too, have read a number of books for laypeople over the years, but I had not heard of this one. I think I might need to add it to my list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy - From what I picked up while Google searching, this book is the most respected, current introduction out there.

The Liberty Belle said...

Fascinating subject, albeit way over my head. I was really interested in what you shared about some particles being changed by the fact that they are observed. In my professional life, this is known to me as the Hawthorne Effect, whereby an individual's behavior becomes modified based on their awareness of observation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - The Hawthorne Effect is fascinating and very real. When a similar thing is observed in the physical word, then it really gets bizarre.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review. I like studies of atoms and particles and the invisible world as well. I think this would be a great book for me to try as well as the others you mentioned.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. More to come on this subject.

James said...

Great review. I've been interested in the quantum world; read some essays by Heisenberg a couple of years ago. Also enjoyed some Sean Carroll a while ago. Thanks for rekindling my interest.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I will be posting commentary on Carol’s book soon.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Oh dear! As loathe as I am to admit it you probably lost me with the words 'quantum physics'. That said, a well written post; as always your words well thought through.

Suko said...

Wow! I 'd love to understand this subject better. Your commentary is brilliant, and I'm very interested in reading The Quantum World.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - it is a fascinating subject that is worth digging into.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Felicity. Even though written for laypeople, three books really are technical.

thecuecard said...

I could use a refresher on subatomic particles since I haven't studied them since school days ... what they do and how they react. You are good to take this study upon yourself. The book does sounds like a good intro. I need to start at the very basics.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Many of the classes that we took in high school and college chemistry, taught the Classical model. Which is not a reflection of what is really going on. Quantum physics is closer to reality, and much stranger.

Stephen said...

Kuods to making it through...QM makes my head hurt.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stephen. At times I find it challenging, but it is also so interesting.

mudpuddle said...

new blog: mudpuddlesoup2.blogspot.com

Whispering Gums said...

You do read some interesting things Brian. I'm glad you answered the question of why you find quantum physics so fascinating? Actually, I find it interesting too - but enough to watch a documentary or listen to a talk. I would read a book if I didn't have so much else to read. However, reading your post is nearly good enough!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - I love the documentaries too. Sometimes I like to dig a little deeper. That is especially true with this subject as it is difficult to understand.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I will head on over.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’m afraid I gave up maths at the end of Year 10, so couldn’t do physics or chemistry, and never really understood them. I do enjoy such layperson stuff as New Scientist, but I’m not sure I could read a whole book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Science Magazine articles are good to. I am very weak with the math. I tend to just skim over it.

baili said...

Thank you for this one SPECIALLY dear Brain !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

i think on earth this is most fascinating and powerful topic for me and i am sure i will read this book and other related to topic
you are amazing with your words and can say difficult things so easily which is quite a skill i believe

i would have loved more from this book though your perspective and words as whatever you told seemed easy to comprehend

i think science is way to recognize our mysterious creator and his creations
and scientists are true worshipers

thank you for this very needed review and introducing this book
blessings to your days ahead !

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. I actually had trouble moving beyond the science that I explained here within the post, as I tried to keep everything understandable. I am not that good of an explainer of science.

Though I do not believe in a creator of the universe, I fo think that science is one of the noblest things that humans do.

Carol said...

I really enjoy science books written for the lay person but so far that hasn't extended to physics!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I think that it is quantum physics and relativity that are the most interesting.