Fortean Times, July 2003

Quantum: A guide for the perplexed
Jim Al-Khalili
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2003
HB, £18.99, pp280, illus, bibl, index, ISBN 0297843052

 

Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili provides a lavishly produced introduction to quantum physics, the ghostly and probabalistic world of weirdness that lies beneath what's generally regarded as solid reality. As he explains in the introduction, the motivation for the book came from Al-Khalili's frustration with the public's preference for the paranormal over the wonders of science - if only people knew about quantum phenomena, there'd be no need for tales of the Bermuda Triangle or poltergeist activity, he somewhat idealistically believes.

The book is addressed at the complete beginner, and offers a lucid introduction to the expected range of quantum phenomena and buzzwords - superpositions, uncertainty, decoherence, and the 'spooky action at a distance' of nonlocality. The benchmark for any introduction to quantum physics has to be the treatment of Schršdinger's infamous feline thought-experiment - Al-Khalili's exposition is one of the clearest I've read, addressing the questions raised about concepts of measurement, observation and the ultimate nature of reality.

Perhaps most interestingly for forteans, the book introduces the various interpretations of quantum theory, the most successful theory ever in terms of the accuracy of its predictions. The debate centres on the role of the observer in determining the events observed - basically, how objective is 'reality'? The 'many-worlds' theory beloved of SF writers is also considered - in an intriguing aside, Al-Khalili relates that the pioneer of this interpretation, Hugh Everett III, became discouraged by his lack of support from other physicists, and went on to make his fortune as a private defence contractor, calculating how to maximise kill rates in a nuclear war.

The book closes with an introduction to the technological applications of quantum phenomena, from quantum cryptography and computing to the theoretical possibility of transportation. There's also a brief look at Roger Penrose's idea that quantum phenomena could underlie the mystery of human consciousness.

This is an excellent introduction to the strangest and most vital of scientific fields, although Al-Khalili's habit of directly addressing the reader in the manner of an overly-matey lecturer occasionally grates. And animal-loving readers worried about the implications of Schrodinger's pet theory will be relieved by the note on the copyright page: 'No cats were harmed in the making of this book'.