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 Carroll. Carroll’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.