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Quantum theory has been with us, in one form or another, for more than a century. Yet the subject still manages to fascinate – and occasionally befuddle – physicists and nonspecialists alike. Some of its central tenets seem outlandishly at odds with our common sense. Particles tunnel through walls; cats seems to hang suspended, at least in Erwin Schrödinger’s description, half-dead and half-alive; tiny chunks of matter separated by lightyears retain some “spooky” entanglement. For all that, quantum theory remains the most precise scientific theory in the history of the universe, with some theoretical calculations matching experimental measurements all the way out to 13 decimal places.

The history of quantum theory has its own richness as well, studded with eccentric thinkers who grappled with quantum theory as the world slid into chaos: scientists who strove to understand the quantum landscape amid the rise of Nazism, the conflagrations of the second world war, the stifling era of red-scare McCarthyism, or the efflorescence of the 1970s New Age movement. The subject’s allure for me stems from the unfolding of this epic intellectual quest against the backdrop of all-too-human history. I caught the “quantum bug” as a kid from reading popular books on the subject, and I have long been interested in its surprisingly colorful history as well. One of my goals in writing How the Hippies Saved Physics was to piece together why certain questions at the heart of quantum theory have moved into or out of the mainstream over time.

The beautiful and beguiling concepts of quantum theory have attracted many expositors, several of whom have responded with grace and whimsy. Together, these books introduce some of the most interesting and consequential ideas of modern physics.

Feynman developed these lectures half a century ago; they remain among the most acclaimed introductions to the subject. With his famously clear exposition, Feynman lures readers into the quantum world: matter that behaves (in some sense) like waves; the role of probability; the implications of the uncertainty principle. Not exactly a popular book—later chapters delve more concertedly into quantitative calculation—this classic introduction rewards disciplined and curious readers.

Gamow was an accomplished theoretical physicist who helped invent the big-bang model of the universe. He was also an inveterate practical jokester. In 1940 he created the endearing Mr Tompkins, a bank clerk with a hankering for science. Gamow’s main trick was to play with the constants of nature so that Tompkins could experience its exotic effects on a human scale. Slow the speed of light, for example, and bicyclists’ wristwatches betray all the effects of Einstein’s relativity. Increase Planck’s constant, and suddenly billiard balls in a pub dissolve into interpenetrating puffs of probability. These lighthearted stories offer a taste of the curiosities of modern physics.

This collection derives from a series of radio interviews with leading physicists. The opening chapter provides an accessible, brief introduction to quantum theory and broaches several competing perspectives on how best to make sense of its implications. The interviews capture a moment in time, during the mid-1980s, when several leading physicists began to grapple again with the interpretation of quantum theory, a subject that had largely been shunted aside.

This life of quantum architect Werner Heisenberg captures the sweep and drama of his early years. A wunderkind who received his doctorate at 22, Heisenberg introduced his version of quantum mechanics just two years later and followed up soon after that with the famous uncertainty principle. On the heels of those triumphs, Heisenberg struggled to balance his abiding German patriotism with the realities of Nazism — a regime that tapped him to lead the still-controversial German nuclear effort.

The two principal creators of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, present studies in contrast. Heisenberg’s physics were brash and bold, while Schrödinger endeavoured to graft quantum theory onto the familiar machinery of classical physics. Yet in their personal lives, their roles were reversed: Schrödinger was far more adventurous, even bohemian. Walter Moore’s deeply researched biography reveals how entwined Schrödinger’s scientific efforts were with his at-times shocking personal life.

Although not as famous as Schrödinger and Heisenberg, Dirac was a master of the subject who clarified many of its early roots and pressed on to build a version that was compatible with Einstein’s relativity. In this moving biography, Farmelo reconstructs Dirac’s extraordinary scientific accomplishments and his tortured inner life.

Some of the most provocative features of quantum theory emerged much more recently. The notion of quantum entanglement — which Einstein had dubbed, dismissively, as “spooky action at a distance” — came into its own over the past 50 years. Gilder provides a creative rendering of the newer material with a series of portraits based on physicists’ published writings, unpublished correspondence and interviews. Her account blends popular science writing with historical detective work and narrative flair.

One of the first popular books to tackle quantum entanglement, this clear and witty account doesn’t shy away from the philosophical stakes. Using thought experiments as well as accessible descriptions of real experiments, Herbert explores how several contending interpretations try to account for an underlying reality.

Quantum theory undergirds physicists’ understanding of the building-blocks of matter: not just atoms or parts of atoms like electrons and nuclei, but deep into the structure the nucleus itself, into a teeming world of quarks, gluons, and — yes! — the Higgs boson. Though written long before the latest discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider, Crease and Mann captured the drama of physicists’ long quest to tease apart the ultimate constituents and forces of nature.

If physicist Chad Orzel’s dog, Emmy, can get the gist of the uncertainty principle, Bell’s theorem, and even quantum teleportation, so can you. An expert in the latest efforts to harness the weird features of quantum theory in the laboratory, Orzel has a knack for helpful analogies. Best of all, his book broaches many of the latest ideas and developments, delivering an accessible account every bit as engaging as classics such as Gamow’s Mr Tompkins, now brought up-to-date.

• David Kaiser is Germeshausen Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has received several teaching awards from MIT and Harvard. A fellow of the American Physical Society, his books include Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (2005) and How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011).

Source: The Guardian

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