When I was in high school, I wormed my way out of taking physics. A combination of the opportunity to study anatomy instead and a detestation for math drove me to take a high level foreign language course instead. Little did I know, 12 years later I would be getting a Master’s Degree that would require me to study acoustics…hahaha…the joke was certainly on me.
Ultimately being thrust into the jaws of physics via acoustics turned out to be fortuitous, however; as I discovered that I find the concepts to be fascinating (though honestly the math remains above me). My study and practice of Buddhism over time then led me to a desire to understand the principles of quantum physics. So, here I am.
Now when I commit to reviewing a book, I don’t skim it. I read it cover to cover. This makes The Quantum Universe: (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw the first book on this subject I’ve actually finished reading. I’ve started many more than this. I learned a great deal from this book. Nonetheless, there appears to be a limit to the extent to which the average person can understand quantum physics.
One of the strengths of The Quantum Universe is the way in which the chapters build upon each other conceptually. Cox and Forshaw begin by outlining the definition of particles and spend a great deal of time helping the reader to understand the way in which electrons can act like either particles or waves, depending on what you are looking for. Given that this is one of the concepts I have encountered before without understanding it, I appreciate the detailed way in which the authors stepped the reader through a variety of scenarios illustrating the phenomena they are describing.
The main rubric the authors used to explain the behavior of electrons is that of clock faces. The length and angle of the hands in relation to the position of the clock as it exists in time and space indicate probabilities in terms of the position of electrons and help explain the ability of electrons to be in one place at one moment and across the universe in another.
The clock metaphor was useful in that it increased the reader’s ability to visualize these microscopic elements and their counterintuitive behavior. Still though, the authoris did assume a familiarity with trigonometry that sent me to http://www.mathisfun.com to complete my understanding of the way in which they were using the clock faces to measure angles.
Truly I did not understand everything this book has to offer, but there were thrilling moments of clarity when my mind wrapped itself around something completely new. One of these moments occurred in Chapter Five: “Movement as an Illusion,” when all of the previous discussion of waves, speeds and the clocks came together. Another came in the following chapter, “The Music of the Atoms,” when they explained potentials of the energetics of electrons in terms of the vibration of guitar strings. (Yeah, acoustics!!) My other favorite eureka moment came in the chapter “Interconnected” when Cox and Forshaw explained the way in which electron bands function.
There were times I felt the authors strayed from the main topic of discussion. These were often only brief diversions, but in a book that is so conceptually dense it interrupted my train of thought. In addition, though, I found the discussion of semi-conductors to be interesting, I felt it would have been better placed in an appendix, like the discussion about the death of stars. This would have better preserved the conceptual flow, which was otherwise a strength of this book. Honestly, most of the math I had to give up on.
I enjoyed reading The Quantum Universe. I feel it has provided me with a better background from which I can approach some of the other reading I am interested in doing. It is definitely a book for the “ambitious” reader though. If you are interested in beginning to crack the code of quantum physics, it is a good place to start.