Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Marcus Chown: Quantum Theory Cannot hurt You.

I don’t pretend to really understand quantum mechanics, but the reason I find it such a fascinating subject is its so completely counter intuitive to the non-quantum world in which my brain evolved and attempts to make sense of the Universe. I was listening to the news this morning about the latest initiatives and campaigns to make science more popular and seem less elitist. This is exactly the sort of book that scientists need to be writing in order to purse this goal.

Chown, splits the book into two sections, the world of the very small, and the world of the very large, and shows how the fundamental laws that govern these two worlds greatly differ from each other, and the small slice of space and time that we are able to perceive.

The world of the very small is introduced by a few interesting facts to fully illustrate how quantum mechanics farts in the face of our blinkered reality. The logic and consequences of these facts is elucidated, not by mathematics and complex equations, but by comparisons, anecdotes and thought experiments that even I could get my head around. For example, if there were some way to squeeze all of the empty space out of the atoms in our bodies, humanity would fit into the space occupied by a sugar cube. Or an atom can be in two different places at once, the equivalent of you being in New York and London at the same time. That makes Phil Collins’ dual appearance at Live Aid in Wembley and Philadelphia seem positively pedestrian. I especially liked the chapter that explained how atoms influence each other instantly even when they are vast distances apart without being subject to all those tedious light speed limits enforced by Einstein’s cosmic police. This is exemplified by two spinning coins, one in a sealed box on the ocean floor, and one on a cold moon in a distant galaxy. The instant the coin on earth comes down as heads, its cousin a billion light years from earth instantly comes down as tails. The consequences of mastering for example, quantum computing, as we have mastered the electron opens up feasible possibilities that make many fantasy writers seem to be unimaginative dullards.

The second half of the book takes a look at the bigger things and therefore concentrates mainly on Einstein and how he discovered the interchangeably of mass and energy as nicely summarised by: E=mc2. Again Chown draws on comparison and anecdotes to illustrate his points, for example the weight of the sun is reducing every second by about the weight of a super tanker. Therefore showing that “photon’s have mass”, and inducing Woody Allen to quip, “I didn’t even know they were Catholic”. Chown concludes with the ultimate Rabbit out of Hat trick or how we learned that the universe has not existed forever but was born from in a titanic explosion 13.7 billion years ago

I’ve always wondered why many people seem far more concerned with the amount of cellulite on a particular celebrities fat arse than with the fascination of our universe and indeed our existence as made sense of by the scientific method. Chown has insured that the excuse of elitism and lack of understandability can no longer be used as a valid defence by such bum watchers.
Post a Comment