The folks at Harvard University Press were nice enough to send me an advance copy of Ken Ford’s new book, 101 Quantum Questions: What You Need to Know About the World You Can’t See a few months ago. I’ve been too busy working on my own book to read any other physics books, though, so the actual book made it into print before my review. Better late than never, though.
As the title promises, this is a book about modern physics written in Q&A format. It’s presented as a list of questions about physics, such as “1: What is a quantum, anyway?” and “6: Why is solid matter solid if it is mostly empty space?” and “15: What are some quantum scales of distance?”These range from extremely basic to very subtle and complicated, and the answers accordingly range from a single paragraph to several dense pages of text. The answers are well pitched for a general audience, with lots of pictures but few equations, and many of them include interesting anecdotes about the development of quantum mechanics, and the people who made it.
It’s sort of difficult for me to review pop-physics books about quantum physics at this point, because having written a book, my “That’s not how I would’ve done it…” reactions are even stronger than they were previously. Because, you know, I spent a lot of time putting together a book explaining quantum physics to a general audience, and in the process developed strong opinions about the proper ordering of topics…
The coverage here is pretty comprehensive, but kind of idiosyncratic. This is the book I alluded to the other day, and while it does hit all the major topics in quantum physics, it’s very strange to see a discussion of quantum physics that covers the Standard Model in detail (“14: What is the standard model?” comes in the second “chapter,” while the seventh chapter includes things like ” 41: Do neutrinos have mass? Why do they ‘oscillate?'”) before talking about the wave nature of matter (“65: What is the de Broglie equation? What is its significance?”). It works, mostly, but the unusual ordering leads to some oddities, like the first discussion of quantum superposition coming in the context of neutrino oscillation, which as I said the other day, I think is asking a bit much of the lay reader. There are a few other moments like that, where the early emphasis on particle and nuclear physics leads to some awkwardness in explaining phenomena that depend on aspects of quantum physics that don’t get discussed until later.
That said, though, it can be valuable to see the same topics introduced in a different way– where a standard explanation has failed for a given reader in the past, a different approach to the material might well circumvent whatever the stumbling point was, and get the important features across. This is, after all, a large part of the reasoning behind How to Teach Physics to Your Dog: that introducing quantum physics via a talking dog may make the subject more approachable to the lay reader. So it would be a little churlish, really, to slag off a book for being non-standard in its approach.
And the Q&A format is a good idea for a book like this. While it can be read straight through (as I did, albeit slowly, for this review), you could also dip in and out of it, skipping topics that are already familiar. the individual questions aren’t entirely independent, of course, but the answers carefully indicate the necessary prerequisite questions, allowing readers to backtrack as needed.
So, I would definitely recommend this to people who are interested in the subject, but don’t have much physics background. It’s particularly useful if you want to know more about particle and nuclear physics, for example to better understand the innumerable press releases about the Large Hadron Collider. The historical anecdotes and photographs of important physicists are also very well done, including a few good stories I hadn’t heard before.