106 of 109 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2007
The Quantum and its resulting uncertainty has haunted physics since Max Planck first brought the idea up (with a certain amount of distaste) in 1900. Einstein added to the trend in 1905, although he did not like the result either. Niels Bohr at first did not appreciate the prospect, but eventually put his own interpretation on it. Werner Heisenberg followed the quantum theory to the Uncertainty Principle, which essentially tolled the death knell to classical deterministic physics.
David Lindley has produced a new rendition of this story in "Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science." While this story has been told by various authors before, it has never had a clearer or more succinct exposition than this one. Here are all the players, not only Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Planck, but the Curies, Pauli, Dirac, Born, Schrödinger and many others. In the end we are left with the triumph of quantum physics, but also with a much more uncertain universe where the old mechanistic model simply will not answer the ultimate questions. Quantum mechanics won't answer them either, but in a quantum universe these questions may make no sense anyway! Perhaps (we may hope)they can't be answered because the questions are not yet properly formulated! Only if we can unite quantum theory with relativity (the unified theory) can we hope to answer anything in a definitive way and this has not so far been accomplished!
Lindley's book is not a comprehensive treatment of the problem, but a short history of the idea and an explanation of why quantum theory matters. A good introduction for the reader who lacks the mathematics (as I do) to deeply probe the field, "Uncertainty" should be read by anyone who would like to understand one of the major ideas of modern science. Among other things, the reader will gain some comprehension of the difficulties involved in the scientific endeavour and of the often complex personalities who practice this arcane activity.
60 of 60 people found the following review helpful
In Uncertainty, Mr. Lindley has written a very user-friendly history of the philosophical changes that came about in physics through the growth of our understanding of quantum physics. As a teacher of physics, I am always looking for books on the subject that are readily understandable by the average intelligent reader. This one certainly fits the bill.
Please note, however, that the focus here is more on theory and philosophy than what might be termed "hard science." There is very little talk of experiments and there is nary an equation in the entire book. Instead, this is a story of theorists and their attempts to interpret and give meaning to the strange things that were happening in physics in the first decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, it is a story of how some of the greatest minds in science disagreed strenuously over these things.
Despite the subtitle, many more names flow through this narrative than Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg. We also get insight into Pauli, Dirac, Born, Schrodinger, and many others. In fact, Einstein really plays little more than a supporting role here. (I suppose having his name on the cover--and first, no less--means more readers are likely to pick it up.) Readers looking for a lot on Einstein will have to look elsewhere. (Relativity theory is barely mentioned in this book on quantum mechanics.) It is Heisenberg who really is center stage. Not at all surprising since it is his uncertainty principle that gives this book its title.
In the end, Lindley gives us a lot of good history, a bit on personalities and a bit more on scientific philosophy as it relates to quantum theory. He also offers real insight into how the scientific mind works and how theory is hashed out by its practitioners in a way that should be accessible to most readers. Anyone interested in modern physics would find this book worth reading.
44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2007
I read two graduate texts on quantum mechanics recently. The first took an historical approach, beginning with Planck's work on black-body radiation, then Einstein's treatment of Brownian motion and light quanta, proceeding on to Bohr's atom, Compton scattering, the Zeeman effect, and so on. The second started out by saying (I paraphrase), "Here's Schroedinger's equation. The rest of the book goes through various solutions, with different potentials."
I find it completely incredible that this little equation can have so many implications, none of them ever having been found to be wrong. Lindley's book is about the "meaning" of quantum mechanics, a project that most physicists consider irrelevant at best. I still remember listening to Feynman's Cal Tech lectures on quantum mechanics, where his urged his student not to try to figure what the equation "means." Rather, he urged them just to solve it and get an intuitive "feel" for how it works. Quantum mechanics doesn't "mean" anything. It just is.
This stance is not enough for many people, including virtually all of its creators, who worked in the dizzying years of discovery, 1900 to 1927. Bohr' model did fit some of the specroscopic data on hydrogen very well, but he spent most of his intellectual (as opposed to organizational) energy thereafter ruminating on the principle of complementarity and the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. The next generation of physicist could not have cared less. When asked about Bohr's interpretation, Dirac replied that there were no equations, so there was nothing of interest there.
This may be the bast book ever written on the topic, despite its elementary nature. Lindley handle complex topics (e.g., Mach and Carnap) with ease and brevity, yet capturing the essence of the issues. His descriptions are what might be termed "stream of consciousness" physics, because he has the ability to enter and explore highly heterogeneous modalities of consciousness, without ever leaving the physics far out of the picture. After you have read this wonderful book, try Abraham Pais' biographies of Einstein and Bohr. They are more work, but more than worth the effort.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
It is unlikely that any three decades in human history witnessed as great a degree of fundamental and revolutionary change in our scientific understanding of the world than those from 1900 to 1930. From Max Planck's conjectures about light quanta in 1900 and Henri Becquerel's and Marie Curie's turn-of-the-century explorations of radiation and x-rays through Einstein's exposition of special and general relativity and his theories about the photoelectric effect to the initial developments of the modern atomic model and the introduction of the probabilistic world of quantum physics, 19th Century scientific understanding of the physical world was utterly subverted and demolished by a handful of mostly European scientists. In a certain sense, the culmination of these revolutionary theories was that of Werner Heisenberg, propounding what has become popularly known as the Principal of Uncertainty.
In his aptly named new book, UNCERTAINTY, David Lindley introduces us to the giants who made this revolution - Heisenberg and Einstein, of course, but also Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Arnold Sommerfeld, Erwin Schrodinger, Paul Dirac, Hendrik Kramers, and Max Born. Lindley's approach more or less traces the chronological history of the events leading to quantum physics and Heisenberg's formal statements of the ultimate uncertainty of measurement at the atomic level. At the same time, he provides excellent insight into the scientific and philosophical turmoil that these conjectures raised and the difficulties of acceptance they encountered. So much of this science was counterintuitive, and worse still, so much of it directly contradicted two thousand years of human belief about universal absolutes and the ultimate nature of science itself. Lindley presents these ideas in an easily understandable, non-mathematical way accessible to virtually any interested reader. To his credit, the author also presents the principals in this story in a decidedly human way, complete with their certainties and doubts and individual peculiarities. Thus, for example, we see Niels Bohr as an almost comical figure, a man for whom "his determination not to say anything straightforward or concise" while striving to reconcile classical physics with the quantum world "seem[ed] almost a phobia."
While UNCERTAINTY hardly constitutes a philosophical dissertation on the implications of Heisenberg's underlying principle, Lindley takes enough steps in that direction to expose the reader neatly to some of the resultant paradoxes and conundrums. For example, he presents the infamous enigma of Schrodinger's half-dead and half-alive cat (nicely crediting Einstein for the original notion, which he proposed as a quantum-rigged bomb in a letter to Schrodinger).
Perhaps most significant to the reader's appreciation, however, is Lindley's observation, almost casually and in passing, of one of Bohr's key arguments about uncertainty. According to Bohr, "all measurements amount to disturbances of what's being measured. The new thing about quantum mechanics...is really that measurement defines what is being measured....measuring one aspect of a system closes the door on what else you can find out, and thus fatally restricts the information that any future measurement might yield." Apply the same notion to today's external world - students' standardized test results under NCLB, crime statistics from the local police department, yardsticks of ostensible success in Iraq - and one can appreciate the validity of Bohr's arguments even as applied to the world at large.
UNCERTAINTY offers those interested in science and philosophy, or those who seek to understand the world around them, an entertaining and readily approachable introduction to the events and people who revolutionized our collective world view in the first thirty years of the 20th Century. I recommend this book to anyone who is making their first forays into this area and wants to learn how these ideas were conceived and developed.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The development of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle was a watershed moment in the history of physics when science and philosophy converged to create a whole new way of looking at reality. Early 20th century physicists were trained in the safe, deterministic environment of Newtonian physics where effect followed cause. Already, the physics world was reeling from the impact of relativity and now the uncertainty principle was telling scientists that at its most fundamental level the universe cannot be precisely known. Perhaps even worse was Heisenberg's other brainchild, quantum mechanics, which said that nature is more than just unknowable it works in an irreducibly random fashion. Together, the uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics suddenly opened up all new discussions on fate, the nature of free will and the effect of observers on subjects.
For a book on such a weighty subject, `Uncertainty' is easily digestible by even layman readers. `Uncertainty' centers on Germany in the period around and between the first and second world wars when physics enjoyed arguably its most productive period ever. Legendary figures like Niels Bohr, Max Born, Ludwig Boltzmann, Erwin Schrodinger and some fellow named Albert Einstein were making spectacular advances pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. The author puts the birth of quantum mechanics in historical perspective having occurred at the same time as the rise of Nazi party. Germany became an increasingly hostile environment for some of the best minds in its midst. It's an example of how intolerance in a country can sabotage its future. Many of the scientists who fled Germany found a much friendlier environment in the U.S. moving the center of physics research away Europe. In the end it was the United States that led the world in nuclear physics.
One person in the book who gets knocked a bit is Albert Einstein himself. After toppling some of the most sacred cows of science Einstein suddenly found himself the grumpy old man trying to rain on the parade of quantum mechanics. The author writes, "Other physicist heard more than they wanted to know about the secrets of the Old One, about the God who doesn't play dice, about the Lord being subtle but not malicious. Einstein talked as if he alone could know the inner truth of nature". Obviously Einstein has earned his place in history many times over but it's interesting to see an author show how even Einstein is a fallible human being and this is what sets `Uncertainty' apart. David Lindley makes the characters come alive. Rather than just listing who developed what and when, he creates fully formed personalities with hopes and bitterness, desires and regret. It's to his credit that the author doesn't paint Einstein as a man who walks on water and many of Einstein's contemporaries do far worse than stand in the way of progress. Max Planck, for instance, had some lamentable moments defending the Nazi's.
This is the first book I have ever read that focused as much on the personalities of the physicists as it does on their achievements. `Uncertainty' is more about the uncertainty of life and the interaction of characters and events than it is about Heisenberg's principle. It's doubtful that physics will ever again have a period even approaching what occurred in the early 20th century. It's an excellent recounting of physics last golden age.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2007
My Dad got his doctorate in Physics at Berlin Institute of Technology (The top technological school in the world at the time) starting in 1932 when Einstein was still there. He knew all the personalities. Heisenberg, Born, Schroedinger. It was a wild and wonderful read for me because the stories were the ones my Dad told me when I was a girl. The book is wonderful for lay persons. It lays out the time line from Brownian Motion to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in non-technical and brilliantly understandable ways. The personalities and all the arguments from Brown, to the Curies, Niels Bohr, Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Pauli, Max Born, Schroedinger are all beautifully researched and quoted from there own works and letters to each other. He finishes with a brilliant critique of how "uncertainty" was co-opted by other subjects, mostly in fascinatingly ignorant ways. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2007
I happily told my wife (a lawyer) that I had not enjoyed a book in a long time as I enjoyed this one. She wouldn't believe me that a book about physicists can be so exciting. The history of the development of quantum mechanics is fascinating, as is the insight that Lindley gives us into the minds of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and others.
The sum of what these great minds created was a lot bigger that the sum of their individual contributions, and it was even too much for them to grasp. Congratulations to the author on presenting what can be a very technical subject matter as an exciting story.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2007
If you've ever had a basic course in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics the names of the main characters in this book will sound familiar ; Robert Brown (yes, from the "Brownian motion of particles"), Charles Darwin, Boltzmann, Poincaré,Röntgen, Rutherford, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Dirac, Pauli, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Geiger ...etcetera
It is actually a concise, lucid and very readable account with due attention to the "personal streaks" of the main characters. With a rare clarity the author manages to paint the transition from the classical Newtonian view of the world to the quantum mechanical view and all the pains suffered in the process.Especially, the confrontations between Einstein and Niels Bohr on this topic are exquisitely recounted. And all this, without mentioning ONE formula (excepting THE formula E=mc2).
In the end one can't but agree with Bohr's statement : "It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature."
In short, this book manages to convey the essence of the new quantum view while it reads like a novel because of the pittoresque characters of the story.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2008
Richard Feynman once remarked, perhaps apocryphally, that if anyone told you they `understood' quantum theory, that the one thing you could depend on is that they had missed something. That is why I find it interesting that many of the `so-so' or negative reviews of this book focus on the issue that it does not impart an `understanding' of quantum theory or mechanics. The entire point of the book is the debate between `determinism,' the idea that everything is knowable (understandable), and `uncertainty,' the idea that nothing can be `known' in the ultimate sense as everything exists only as a probability.
So, in the limited sense, this book will not allow you to `understand' quantum mechanics; if you are a careful reader you will see that `understanding' in the common sense is impossible if you accept uncertainty.
In the past few years there have been many books about particle physics, string theory, cosmology, and such which are more or less dependent on the idea that at the heart of the matter uncertainty rules the function of physics on both the large and the small scale. Rutherford once asked Bohr what `caused' the electron to shift from one state to another; Bohr spent most of the rest of his life trying to explain that the question was irrelevant; nothing `causes' the shift; it is a probability function. At the larger scale Edward Tryon said "our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time."
I really admire this book because it does focus on the personalities of the big players in this debate, something other reviewers have criticized. But unless you understand the background of these giants of science you will not understand why some of them resisted the idea of indeterminism even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
But the debate continues with some popular writers, Dinesh D'Souza, `What's So Great About Christianity?,' for example, who wish to maintain that all scientists accept a deterministic model of the Universe and that this constitutes a sort of `religious faith' in causality. The fact is that most scientists ignore the issue as it has little to do with day to day science. But if you are at all interested in what the debate means in so far as particle physics and cosmology is concerned, this book is an excellent primer on the topic. Because the book does not present a comprehensive, non-mathematical, explanation for quantum mechanics should not be seen as a fault, it's `simply one of those things.'
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2007
Over the years, I have read several accounts of this ground-breaking period in early twentieth century physics - and this has got to be one of the very best. The main reasons for this, in my opinion, are: the author's friendly and engaging prose, his authoritative style (he is, after all, a trained astrophysicist) and his impeccable clarity of expression which renders some otherwise obscure concepts as clear as they need to be for the purpose of this book. The author weaves this fascinating tale with related history, relevant world politics and mini-biographies of many of the important characters. The last couple of chapters are more heavily centered on the philosophical aspects of the new physics. This includes various people's reactions towards the strange way that nature seems to behave at the atomic scale and what it could mean in daily life. This excellent book can be enjoyed by anyone, although science buffs may find the subject matter closer to their hearts.