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The Quantum Story

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve read many accounts of the early days of quantum mechanics. Einstein and Planck, Bohr and Born, de Broglie and Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger. A familiar tale, for good reason. I wouldn’t think we’re in need of another account.

But a year ago, another one appeared, Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and last April, Jeremy Bernstein reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal. This passage suggested that another account may well be needed, and this may be the one:

I have never come across a book quite like Jim Baggott’s “The Quantum Story.” He has done something that I would have thought impossible in a popular book. He manages to present the full ambit of the theory, starting with the introduction of the quantum—the basic unit of energy—by the German physicist Max Planck in the beginning of the 20th century, and ending with the search for the Higgs particle at the collider at CERN in Geneva. In doing this Mr. Baggott navigates successfully between the Scylla of mathematical rigor and the Charybdis of popular nonsense. He also manages to get the people right. I know this because for many of the scenes he describes I was there.

That Baggott brings the tale to the present day, an unexpectedly ambitious undertaking, was reason enough for me to consider the book. And consider it I’ve done, off and on for months, whenever I cast about for what to read next. But I have resisted.

Two nights ago, with Pelecanos’s What It Was behind me, it was casting time again. I turned first to another book on my list, Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History. Its day will come, and soon, but Friday I decided I wasn’t ready. Next I considered Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon’s 1983 study that, I believe, evolved from his PhD thesis. Since reading his brilliant Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West last April, I have been eager to return to this earlier work. The Kindle edition is inexpensive, so I downloaded it and read the Preface, only to decide again that the time wasn’t right.

What else? Well, maybe The Quantum Story. I had downloaded the free Kindle sample before. This time I moved beyond that, took the plunge, bought and downloaded it. I’m about a sixth of the way into it, in the midst of moment number nine. The year is 1926, and sure enough, the usual characters are doing the usual things. Nonetheless, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Baggott is a good storyteller. And he manages to perform a neat trick at the start of each moment, continuing the previous chapter’s tale for a few paragraphs in a way that effectively sets the stage for the next one.

Not that the explanations of the quantum mechanics are easy to follow. Bernstein warns in concluding his WSJ review that “the problem is not the mathematics. There is almost none. The problem is that physics is hard. Quantum mechanics is hard. Like a good wine, you cannot take this book in gulps. Take it in sips. It is well worth it.” I might actually prefer more mathematics rather than vague mathematical talk. Not to complain. So far so good. And I still have the Crimean War to look forward to.

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