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The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments

Jim Baggott
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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When I was a kid I read, with great enthusiasm and zeal, every physicists’ biography I could lay my hands on: everything from books on Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Fermi (the only ones featured at my neighborhood library) to George Gamow’s Thirty Years that Shook Physics. At age 13 or so I didn’t yet know that spending one’s life in the company of mathematics was vouchsafed to other than theoretical physicists — after all, the guys in the white lab coats on TV, sporting slide-rules (I still have three or four of them) and horn-rimmed glasses, were all physicists (or close). And I spied all sorts of mysterious formulas, more like incantations, covering their obligatory blackboards as they stood before them ready to tell the hero of the story that, by their calculations, the impending catastrophe would… well, fill in the blank in your own favorite way. I’m sure that, except for some very trivial changes, this experience is normative for members of the mathematical community, probably including the discovery (in my case very early in the game) that what was really coolest, and then irresistible, was not the white coat or the slide rule but, yes!, the mysterious formulas, and even more so the artistry of proving theorems. And after such an epiphany it’s off to E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics or, nowadays, any of a dozen fine biographies of mathematicians properly so called: teenagers certainly need good role models, after all.

Nonetheless, not only does a lingering affection remain for the white lab coats and slide rules crowd, but it can happen that as a mathematician travels the road delineated by his fate, he reaches a point where in one way or another physics re-enters his orbit. Indeed, in this day and age it is ever so easy to be seduced into working in the area where theoretical physics and pure mathematics manifest various cross fertilizations; for instance, the interplay between general relativity and differential geometry comes to mind right off, as does (perhaps even more emphatically) the fecund relationship between parts of number theory and highly souped up quantum mechanics. Quantum field theory and string theory are possibly the most obvious examples of rich sources for mathematical ideas and methods in this connection.

I think this is ample justification for such books as the one under review, as far as the community of mathematicians is concerned. Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in Forty Moments is possibly poised to fill the role Gamow’s book filled forty years ago, for a similar audience. But this isn’t really a proper comparison: Baggott’s book is far more detailed and is much heavier on biographical and, for lack of a better word, sociological elements: Gamow was after all a physicist himself, an insider, and indeed a member of the Copenhagen establishment ruled by Niels Bohr, whereas Baggott’s background is in chemistry and he has over the years established a wonderful record as a science writer and expositor (and quite a good one, judging by his record: see p.xi). This implies an obvious advantage for us pure mathematicians, peeking into the world of the physicists in a necessarily tentative way: Baggott’s book is very user-friendly. As the title conveys, Baggott has, so to speak, quantized the history of quantum physics via forty historical observations that cover the spectrum of the field, from its initial state (Max Planck and Albert Einstein) to what we see in our orbits today, and his presentation is very readable and cogent. His use of quotations from the major players themselves is particularly on target. Here are three samples:

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory starts from a paradox. Any experiment in physics, whether it refers to the phenomena of daily life or to atomic events, is to described in terms of classical physics. The concepts of classical physics form the language by which we describe the arrangement of our experiments and state the results. We cannot and should not replace these concepts by any others. Still the application of these concepts is limited by the relations of uncertainty. We must keep in mind this limited range of applicability of the classical concepts while using them, but we cannot and should not try to improve on them. (Werner Karl Heisenberg; see p. 106)

Hans [Bethe] was using the old cookbook quantum mechanics that Dick [Feynman] couldn’t understand. Dick was using his own private quantum mechanics that nobody else could understand. They were getting the same answers whenever they calculated the same problems. And Dick could calculate a whole lot of things that Hans couldn’t. It was obvious to me that Dick’s theory must be fundamentally right. I decided that my main job, after I finished the calculation for Hans, must be to understand Dick and explain his ideas in a language that the rest of the world could understand. (Freeman J. Dyson, re. quantum electrodynamics, a.k.a. QED; see pp. 188–189)

I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation — a fix up to say “Well, it still might be true.” (Richard P. Feynman on superstring theory (already in the 1980s!); see p. 405)

Thus, the sweep of all things quantum is well represented: the forty moments of the title are very well chosen and they beautifully demarcate the story. Passing to equivalence classes, Baggott splits his account into the following seven parts: “Quantum of action,” “Quantum interpretation,” “Quantum debate,” “Quantum fields,” “Quantum particles,” “Quantum reality,” and “Quantum cosmology.” There are also two interludes: “The first war of physics: Christmas 1938–August 1945,” regarding the Second World War and the atomic bomb, and (an an epilogue) “Quantum of solace” (pace 007), regarding the alleged Higgs boson. Additionally, Baggott’s prose is smooth and evocative and he introduces many of his discussions with well-written and cogent analytic introductions.

The Quantum Story: A History in Forty Moments is bound to score both as an accessible exposition of one of the greatest stories in the history of science (ongoing still) and as a prelude to such heavier tomes as Schweber’s QED and the Men Who Made It or Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

Part I: Quantum in Action
1. An Act of Desperation: Berlin 1900
2. Independent Energy Quanta: Bern 1905
3. Quantum Numbers and Quantum Jumps: Manchester 1913
4. Wave-particle Duality: Paris 1923
5. Strangely Beautiful Interior: Helgoland 1925
6. A Late Erotic Outburst: Swiss Alps 1925
7. The Self-rotating Electron: Leiden 1925
Part II: Quantum Probability and Quantum Uncertainty
8. Quantum Probability: Gottingen 1926
9. The Whole Idea of Quantum Jumps Necessarily Leads to Nonsense: Copenhagen 1926
10. Uncertainty Principle: Copenhagen 1927
11. The Copenhagen Interpretation: Copenhagen 1927
12. Complementarity: Lake Como 1927
Part III: Quantum Interpretation
13. Gedankenexperiment: Brussels 1927
14. An Absolute Wonder: Cambridge 1927
15. A Certain Unreasonableness: Brussels 1930
16. A Bolt from the Blue: Copenhagen 1935
17. The Paradox of Schrodinger's Cat: Oxford 1935
Part IV: Quantum Fields
18. Crisis: Shelter Island 1947
19. Quantum Electrodynamics: Oldstone 1949
20. Gauge Symmetry and Gauge Theories: Princeton 1954
21. Three Quarks for Muster Mark: Pasadena 1963
22. The Higgs Mechanism: Edinburgh 1965
Part V: Quantum Particles
23. Electro-weak Unification: Harvard 1967
24. Deep Inelastic Scattering: Stanford Linear Accelerator Center 1967
25. Asymptotic Freedom and Quantum Chromodynamics: Harvard 1973
26. The November Revolution: Brookhaven and SLAC 1974
27. The W and Z Bosons: CERN 1983
28. Completing the Picture: Fermilab 1994
Part VI: Quantum Reality
29. Hidden Variables: Princeton 1951
30. Bell's Theorem: Geneva 1964
31. The Aspect Experiments: Paris 1982
32. Beating the Uncertainty Principle: Albuquerque 1991
33. Three-photon GHZ States: Vienna 2000
34. Reality, Whether Local or Not: Vienna 2007
Part VII: Quantum Gravity
35. That Damned Equation: Princeton 1967
36. The First Superstring Revolution: Aspen 1984
37. The Quantum Structure of Space: Santa Barbara 1986
38. No Consistency Without Contingency: Durham 1995
39. The Second Superstring Revolution: Los Angeles 1995
40. Resolving the Impasse: CERN 2008
Quantum Timeline
Name Index
Subject Index