I made a run to the library last week on one of the days I was home with SteelyKid, as an excuse to get out of the house for a little while. I picked up three books: Counterknowledge, The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt (an Antiquities Dealers Innnnn Spaaaaaace novel, and a good example of Competence Fiction), and a pop-science book titled The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Came of Age by Louisa Gilder, because it looked fairly relevant to my own book-in-progress.
Amusingly, my RSS feeds yesterday brought me the latest in a series of posts in which ZapperZ waxes peevish about the book based on reviews of it. I’m sure that my reviewing it will just make his day– I thought it was an excellent book, and am already planning to add it to the “further reading” list and at least one footnote of my own book-in-progress.
The gimmick of the book is that it tells the story of quantum entanglement in part through a series of imaginary conversations between major figures of 20th century physics– one scene has Einstein, Bohr, and Sommerfeld riding a streetcar, for example, while another has Pauli and Heisenberg on a cycling trip with Otto Laporte. The dialogue in these scenes is “reconstructed” from letters and essays written by the people in question, as in this bit featuring David Bohm and Feynman in a bar in Brazil:
“So, Dave,” said Feynman, “how’s everything going for you in Sao Paulo?”
Bohm was nodding, eyebrows raised: “Ah… it’s O.K. … there are several good students here…”
“Tell me, Dave, do you find that it’s all memorized? The students down in Rio have memorized everything, yet nothing has ever been translated for them into meaningful words…. There’s so much for us to do out here. There’s so much to teach.”
“We’re helping establish physics down here,” said Bohm. “The department in Sao Paulo was founded less than twenty years ago.”
“Yeah, it’s exciting,” said Feynman. “You know, I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. I remember when I was at Princeton and I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advances Study. They’d been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. So these poor bastards can sit and think clearly all by themselves”– he laughed– “That would choke me up like nothing else.”
Bohm was laughing now too. “The Princetitute: home of the greatest stagnating brains of the century.”
“You need someone to bother you! They just don’t have anything, any students, any interaction with experimentalists, anything to give them”– Feynman snapped his fingers–“the spark of an idea.”
That scene is built out of bits of a letter from Bohm to Einstein (“there are several good students”), two Feynman anecdotes from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and a letter from Bohm to somebody else (“The Princetitute…”). The connective tissue is original to Gilder, to make these sound like real conversations.
It’s an interesting device, and it does add some immediacy to some of the anecdotes. The whole book isn’t this way, which is probably a good thing, as some of the “dialogue” is awfully stilted, but it works pretty well as a “hook,” and may be enough to draw in some readers who would otherwise give it a miss.
Skipping over this book would be a shame, because it’s a really good piece of work. It covers the history of quantum theory from about 1909, and focussing on the discovery of the problems and potential of quantum entanglement. There’s some good background on the major players, and the famous debates that everybody has heard about, but a great deal of the book is given over to discussing figures that are overlooked in a lot of other books: the troubled Paul Ehrenfest, who eventually committed suicide; David Bohm, who re-invented quantum mechanics as a non-local hidden variable theory; the Irish physicist John Bell, who figured out the real meaning of the EPR paper.
The most interesting bit tells the story of the first attempts to test Bell’s theorem, by a collection of people– John Clauser, Ed Fry, Stuart Freedman, Abner Shimony, Mike Horne, and Richard Holt– who cobbled together some beautiful experiments in the 1970’s despite general indifference and occasional hostility from the rest of the community. Gilder reverses the usual trend in pop-physics books (my own included) by giving the bulk of the experimental space to Clauser and company, and relegating Alain Aspect to a brief mention in which his magnificent mustache gets almost as much mention as his magnificent experiments of 1981-2.
The emphasis here is much more on the history than the science. That’s not to say that the science is wrong– sure, there are occasional hiccups that would no doubt raise ZapperZ’s blood pressure, but for the most part, the descriptions of the physics involved are solid. They’re also highly readable, with the key points of contention in the great debates laid out with admirable clarity.
Gilder even does the great service of correcting some common misconceptions regarding the debates between Einstein and Bohr. Einstein was, in her account (which fits with things I’ve been told by other people who have studied this), concerned with entanglement and its implications well before the EPR paper, and in fact had tried to raise those points with Bohr as early as the Solvay conference. Bohr kept misunderstanding the point, though, and latching on to things that were more easily explained away.
Amazingly, this is Gilder’s first book. It doesn’t read like a first book– the history presented here is extremely detailed, exhaustively researched, and compellingly readable. She’ll be worth keeping an eye on.
And I’ll be buying a copy of this for myself, shortly after I return this one to the library.