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.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Leifer
    December 8, 2008

    Sounds like an interesting book. It’s good to see Einstein’s point of view on the Solvay debates getting a wider airing. The traditional account is based on an article written by Bohr:

    Bohr, N. (1949). Discussion with Einstein on epistemological problems in atomic physics. In P.A. Schilpp (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Philosopher-scientist (pp. 201-241). La Salle: Open Court.

    which is a great pedagogical article containing the pictures of the double slit apparatus bolted down to the lab bench that we all know and love. However, the article is understandably biased towards the Copenhagen position and misrepresents what Einstein’s main concerns were. From this article comes the idea that Einstein was mainly trying to attack the uncertainty principle.

    For a more balanced view of the 1927 Solvay conference, see http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0609184 which includes the full proceedings of the conference translated into English. From a modern point of view, it is clear that Einstein’s main concern is a primitive version of the EPR paradox and that the uncertainty attacks are just a device for expressing worries about completeness.

  2. #2 Ken Graham
    December 8, 2008

    I went to college with Louisa Gilder. We had the same intro physics class. Sometime after graduation I remember reading that she was writing a book on QM. It’s nice to see that she published it!

  3. #3 George Gilder
    December 12, 2008

    Just for clarification, the conversations in Louisa’s book are not imaginary (all of them are documented to have taken place at the specified time and place). She reconstructs the conversations, as best she can (a word of footnote for every four words of quotation), from contemporary materials and recollections.

  4. #4 Chris W.
    December 20, 2008

    See this interesting interview with Louisa Gilder at Powells.com.

  5. #5 Chris W.
    December 20, 2008

    PS: By the way, the previous commenter is, among other things (including being Louisa’s father), a founder of the Discovery Institute.

  6. #6 dick gregor
    March 29, 2009

    Anyone out there- quick comment passed along to LG
    Great work on TAOE- lot of heavy lifting — did you ever run across Miles VanValzah Hayes- professor of mine at Thayer in 1970′s work A Unified Field Theory- Non linear GUFT which could be simplified to Maxwell and Einstein’s equations- he dedicated it to deBroglie- who messed about with NLDEs – I did some brief work with an analog computer at Thayer solving van der Pohl’s equation and was always struck by the concept of unstable limit cycle solutions- very much like the way that basic energy particles respond to massive energy insults via accelerators or Big Bangs- just a thought- all the best, and I am looking forward to your work- dick g Th ’71

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2009

    The question is thus not WHETHER Einstein was right in his arguments with Bohr, but whether conventional History of Science is wrong about WHY Bohr was wrong. I’m paraphrasing from something in Physics Today 2-4 months ago.

    A personal take on the figures involved in the early QM and Relativity debates is the play, recently translated from German to English, “Faust in Copenhagen.” There was a terrific review of this by Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books 1-2 years ago. Dyson sheds insight on Max Delbruck’s switch from Physics to (at Caltech) Molecular Biology, seeking the biological equivalent of the Bohr atom; and on the rebels versus those who wanted to consolidate their gains from the QM and Relativity revolutions. Einstein led the faction demanding another revolution, and getting lost in Unified Field Theory.

    Dyson is as insightful in this review — including a paragraph summarizing his take on post-modern Biology — as he is accused this month of being eccentric in the Global Warming debates.

  8. #8 David E. Smith
    May 2, 2009

    The fact that Dr. Bertlmann prefers to wear different colored socks, does not prevent him from choosing on any given day, a very small percentage of the time, from picking up and putting on two socks of the same color. This is because Dr. Bertlmann has agency to pick and choose his socks and that agency does not prevent him from violating his own preference for picking different colored socks and instead picking two same colored socks once in a while. This would violate any mathematical model that attempts to predict his sock choice based on past experience and familiarity with his dress habits. While we expect that having seen the pink sock on one foot, that the next foot coming into view will not be pink, it cannot be stated with certainty because Dr. Bertlmann has agency within his sphere of sock picking to make a different and unpredictable choice.

    It is entirely possible that matter, on some sub-atomic level, has agency within a particle’s own sphere of existence, to act for itself and to be acted upon. What we observe as entanglement of two particles acting at a distance may well be the result of each particle’s agency within it’s realm of existence. This conclusion is not without support in religion. A prophet has said that all spirit is matter and can be spiritually discerned if our mortal eyes were finely attuned to observe spiritual things. Further more, all physical matter was spiritually created before it was physically created upon the earth and therefore has a spirit form. And we know that all spirit is responsive to commands from our Heavenly Father, for it is stated of the Son of God, that the worlds are and were created by his word, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God. All living things have a certain amount of agency to act for themselves within the sphere of their existence, man having been given the greatest amount of agency to act for himself in mortality. It is logical therefore, to assume that all matter, even at the level of fundamental particles, also have a certain measure of agency, making their behavior unpredictable on some level, just as we can never be entirely sure that Dr. Bertlmann won’t show up one day with two socks of the same color. It may be that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is simply the measure of the limits of our discernment of the agency of matter in a mortal world.

  9. #9 Marianne Bacon
    February 22, 2010

    Louisa’s book, and her charming video here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2670407799997768291# , have created an appetite for learning about this subject at my house. She has really done us a favor, bringing this apparently formidable content into a fresh, human focus. As I wrote to tell her, my husband and I have been reading it aloud to one another. She has also tipped us off to the charms of David Mermin as a teacher, and we are likewise reading his “Boojums…” What a thrilling new exploration for us.

    Marianne Bacon and Jonathan Dickinson, Middletown, CT

  10. #10 paolo manzelli
    August 13, 2010

    –> RATIONALIZE AND DISSEMINATE IN SCIENCE AND ART
    the synchronicity of entanglement effect will be the objective of the 3* workshop of Quantum Bio Net (24/sept/2010) c/o Alessandro Volta classroom .

    - Simultaneity and synchronicity in transfer dynamics of information seen as in terms of quantum entanglement–disentanglement, is a concept at the heart of the profound difference between mechanical concepts between classical and quantum physics.

    The focus of Nonlocality of quantum entanglement could be of central importance to promote new technologies in BIO & GREEN ECONOMY .Hence at the 3* Workshop of Quantum BioNet , participants ae invited to discuss the potential impact Bio-Economy on science and art , in the perspective of the global challenges of Green Economy development in order to local and regional cultural and economic new opportunities of growth.

    INVITATION: to the 3* W.S. to understanding contemporary challenges in science and art.

    A preliminary approach for improving the partnership on the
    EU call. KBBE.2011.4-06: Bio-Economy Promotion
    See: see: http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/kbbe/platforms_en.htm
    ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/fp7/kbbe/docs/draftorientationpaper.pdf (at page 81/82)

    Mission:

    Change the world will become ‘possible only by changing the mechanicistic ideas that are the intellectual cause to devast the world during the industrial epoch.

    Developments on cognitive change and implementation of bio-economy,are necessary to promote the framework for renewal of green economy will be discussed during the workshop to be held in the ancient
    A. Volta classroom at the University of Pavia on 24 SETT/10.

    You are invited to attend.The W.S. Has no fees to pay.

    See :http://www.edscuola.it/archivio/lre/3rd_Quantumbionet_Workshop.pdf
    see also the explanatory memorandum in:http://www.wbabin.net/science/manzelli85.pdf
    and see: http://www.edscuola.it/archivio/lre/artificial_photosynthesis.pdf

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