Books : reviews

David Lindley.
Where Does the Weirdness Go?: why quantum mechanics is strange, but not as strange as you think.
Vintage. 1996

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 9 July 2003

To Einstein, the implications of quantum mechanics were hugely disturbing: suddenly uncertainty and ambiguity became not just unavoidable, but essential ingredients of science. And yet, the familiar world of everyday experience is built from just such unreliable ingredients – so how can it be as solid, dependable and predictable as we know it to be?

Where Does the Weirdness Go? is a fascinating, informative and highly readable explanation of one of the most dramatic and far-reaching revolutions in modern science.

This is a great account of that most weird of all subjects: quantum mechanics. Lindley eschews the increasingly popular approach of arranging his material historically and biographically. Rather, he orders his material in a way more appropriate to explaining the subject matter, focussing on describing the essential physics in a logical manner, and leaving the people involved where they belong: on the periphery. This focus in no way makes the book dry or inaccessible. Lindley has a light touch, describing his material clearly and amusingly. His prose style is delightfully transparent throughout. However, there is one place where he uses a deliberately obscure style to make his point; I laughed out loud when I got to the end of

Whereas Niels Bohr enveloped the mysteries of quantum mechanics in a web of words as enigmatic and ambiguous as the subject he sought to explain, smothering his readers in a blanket of reassurance that warded off misunderstanding by the indirect expedient of creating a beguiling darkness that set in precisely at the point where one should want more light, and leading more than a few students of physics to conclude—not without, one may suppose, a dim sense of betrayal, for how could a loyal apprentice admit the master’s thick blandishments to conceal not great wisdom but the implicit acknowledgment of failure?—that his pronouncements had begun to resemble what Thomas Hardy said was the prose of Henry James, that is, a ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences, Bell pursued clarity above all.

The majority of the book is taken up with a careful description of quantum measurements, and what the implications are. Entanglement emerges “for free” from this treatment – it’s just the way the quantum universe is. Then towards the end we get an equally careful description of decoherence: why the macroscopic world doesn’t exhibit quantum weirdness (except in very carefully arranged circumstances), and why Schrodinger’s cat isn’t a problem.

Lindley clearly describes the science and the philosophy: what it does, and what it means. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the implications of living in a quantum world.

David Lindley.
The Dream Universe: how fundamental physics lost its way.
Doubleday. 2020

A vivid and captivating narrative about the emergence of modern science and how fundamental physics is regressing to its prescientific roots

In the early seventeenth century, Galileo broke free from the hold of ancient Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. When he asserted that we should base our understanding of reality on what we can observe rather than on pure thought, he drastically changed the way we view the natural world. In the process, he invented what came to be called science. This set the stage for Kepler, Newton, and Einstein. But in the early twentieth century, science began to change course. As quantum physics opened up realms increasingly far removed from what could be observed directly, theorists were forced to trust in the elegance and aesthetics of mathematics to develop their conception of physical reality. For many physicists, the power of math began to supersede the scientific insights upon which their predecessors relied. But this process rendered their theories more and more resistant to experimental and observational scrutiny. As a result, much of theoretical physics today is once again more akin to the philosophy of Plato than to the centuries-long model of science from which it springs. In The Dream Universe, Lindley asks whether science that has become completely untethered from measurable phenomena is really science at all.