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Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality 1st Edition

149 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393078299
ISBN-10: 0393078299
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With vigor and elegance, Kumar describes the clash of titans that took place in the world of physics in the early 20th century, between physicists who did and those who did not believe in the quantum—the strange concept that we now know to be the underpinning of reality. The titans in Kumar's account of the conflict are Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. In 1900, Max Planck discovered that electromagnetic radiation and the energy of light are transmitted not in a continuous flow but in small packets called quanta (singular, quantum). Bohr applied the idea of quantum to electrons, leading to the development of quantum mechanics. Bohr's theory explained experimental results that were inexplicable in classical theory. Einstein rejected Bohr's theory overturning reality in dangerous but also thrilling ways. The clash culminated at the 1927 Solway conference. Kumar, founding editor of Prometheus and a consulting science editor for Wired UK, recounts this meaty, dense, exciting story, filled with vivid characters and sharp insights. With physics undergoing another revolution today, Kumar reminds us of a time when science turned the universe upside down. 16 pages of photos. (May)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* “A first rate mind, extremely critical and far-seeing.” Einstein quickly sizes up the mental powers of Danish scientist Neils Bohr. How ironic that Bohr will demonstrate his farseeing vision most compellingly by discrediting Einstein’s own myopia! Kumar recounts Bohr’s astounding triumph over the great German theorist in their debate over quantum physics, thus illuminating a pivotal episode in modern physics. In that episode readers see how quantum mechanics integrates a range of promising but puzzling and seemingly disconnected subatomic discoveries. Readers see, for instance, how a cautious Max Planck reluctantly parcels light into discrete packets and how a befuddled Ernest Rutherford recognizes that only a radically new model of the atom can explain alpha-particle deflections. Though only specialists will understand the technical issues, Kumar keeps the main thread of his narrative accessible to the intelligent general reader, particularly clarifying how Einstein’s belief in objective reality pits him against the daringly agnostic Bohr, who leaves the mysteries of wave-particle duality veiled in statistical probabilities and abstract formulas. Intellectual exhilaration runs high as Einstein repeatedly presses Bohr—posing daunting questions about how to weigh an imaginary box of light and how to explain eerily “entangled” particles. The future of science hangs in the balance: physics becomes high drama. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393078299
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393078299
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (149 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #423,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

171 of 175 people found the following review helpful By Louis Ryan on June 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The development of quantum physics through the 20th century is one of the great adventures of science, and here at last is a book aimed at the layperson which clearly explains its key concepts, while situating the scientific development in its broader setting. The result is a challenging and enthralling read.

Quantum is appropriately sub-titled, Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality. The long theoretical duel between these two giants of modern physics is a recurring theme of the book, but the story starts before them with the build-up to the discovery of Planck's constant at the turn of the century, and continues beyond their deaths (in 1955 and 1962 respectively) to take in Bell's Theorem and Everett's "many worlds" interpretation. Along the way we meet other great physicists such as Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, Dirac and Bohm.

One might suspect that a book of such scope would be in danger of being overcrowded with theories and theorists, yet Kumar rises to the challenge, displaying a novelist's sense of pacing allied with an impressive scientific clarity and succinctness. Clearly he has taken to heart the famous injunction attributed to Einstein to "make it as simple as possible, but no simpler!" He also strikes a judicious balance between scientific explanation and human context. This provided for me a welcome alternation between the physics and the lives of the physicists, with each stimulating an interest in the other.

What is so powerful and inspiring about this book is the way it conveys the passion for truth of those great pioneers. No doubt ego played its part as well, they would hardly have been human otherwise, but it is always secondary to the great quest to fathom the nature of sub-atomic reality.
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93 of 99 people found the following review helpful By Rama Rao VINE VOICE on December 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The great Einstein-Bohr debate about physical reality is interesting not only to physicists, but also to great many readers interested in understanding the nature. This discussion between Bohr and Einstein over the interpretation of quantum theory began in 1927 at the fifth Solvay Conference. The debate over the ability of quantum theory to describe nature was fueled by many leading physicists of the time, some of whom directly contributed to the development of quantum physics, but later found themselves arguing against the theory they helped to create. Notable examples include Erwin Schrodinger, Paul Dirac, and Max Planck; the latter two did not actively participate in challenging the quantum reality. Bohr and Einstein spent many years intensely debating the nature of reality, and their discussions are known for very famous Einstein's comments such as; "God does not play dice,' or "God is slick, but he ain't mean," and Bohr's response was "don't bring God into this (discussion of quantum physics)." Bohr argued vigorously against both deterministic and realistic world, but Einstein was equally adamant to defend these two physical and philosophical concepts. Deterministic philosophy was spurred by Newtonian mechanics; if we know a system and its physical properties (size, color, or position) at one point in time, then at some point in future we can predict the system based on these physical properties. Bohr argued that complete knowledge of the present can result only in a description of what the future most probably will be like, but there is no such thing as certainty in quantum world. This thought is mystified by what is commonly called Copenhagen interpretation, and its strong proponents were Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born.Read more ›
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By V Drucker on May 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Kumar's book on the history of early twentieth century physics and atomic theory skips from page to page, fleshing out scientific expanations with vivid descriptions of the key protagonists. It is a real skill to make sophisticated scientific theories accessible to the lay person, but Kumar's use of metaphor helps bring the most intangible concepts to life. This is a modern classic, but more important, a really fun read.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By David Wineberg TOP 500 REVIEWER on July 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
There are a number of very striking themes and trends in Quantum that other reviewers have not brought out, being dazzled, no doubt, by the swift pacing, tantalizing prose and cliffhanger hooks that Kumar employs so magnificently in Quantum.

First, as someone who has struggled to understand quantum mechanics when it is presented in textbooks as a whole system, I was delighted to find that physicists have the same problem. Even (if not especially) Albert Einstein. By taking us through the history of it, and enjoying the exhilaration of every incremental discovery, theory and step, I find I am really comfortable reading about it, and have no difficulty assimilating it. When you're along for the ride instead of the textbook, it makes a gigantic difference. Bravo, Kumar.

Second, it became painfully obvious that physics is far more philosophy than science. I felt like the arguments came from my Logic 101 class. Socrates would have enjoyed crossing swords with Bohr. The arguments of the scientists were really basic, philosophical differences of opinion, not the least bit esoteric or idiosyncratic. It seems that medicine is not the only "science" where they tell you to get a second opinion. That was a revelation, and it made physics all that more human.

Third, Quantum confirms a lifelong suspicion that this was and is a young man's game. It seems that every time things started to get stale, some precocious 26 year old student would come along with a new portion of a theory, and rock the establishment. And then live off that discovery for the rest of his life - winning the Nobel Prize (as almost every one of them eventually did), getting professorships - but never shaking the tree again. In music we would call them one hit wonders.
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