In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality Reprint Edition
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Gribbin opens with the subjects that most physics professors have just started to examine at the end of the semester: The mysterious character of light, the valence concept in Nils Bohr's atomic model, radioactive decay, and the physics of life-defining DNA all get clear, comprehensive, and witty coverage. This book reveals the beauty and mystery that underlies everything in the universe.
Does this book claim to explain quantum physics without math? No. Math is too central to physics to be bypassed. But if you can do basic algebra, you can understand the equations in In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. Gribbin is the physics teacher everyone should have in high school or college: kind without being a pushover, knowledgeable without being condescending, and clearly expressive without being boring. Gribbin's book belongs on the shelf of every pre-calculus student. It also deserves a place in the library of everyone who was scared away from advanced physics prematurely.
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Gribbin explains things pretty well: that many of these subatomic particles are both waves and particles. One could say that they have the properties of both a tiny object and a wave, but they do not necessarily have both properties at the same time. Instead of traditional Newtonian mechanics which are described by fairly clear mathematics, in quantum mechanics “events are governed by probabilities.” (2) Hence the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, there is a 50-50 chance it is dead or alive, but we do not know till we open the box. Indeed, Niels Bohr, one of the pioneers of both relativity and quantum physics said. “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (5)
Much of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is the history of the main discoveries of quantum mechanics. It seems like just about everyone named in the book has won a Nobel Prize unless they died young. This helps us see how we arrived at where we are and what the different researchers were looking for or what they discovered. One great ironic/paradoxical sentence: “In 1906 J. J. Thomson had received the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are particles; in 1937 he saw his son awarded the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are waves. Both father and son were correct, and both awards were fully merited.” (91)
Some connections were made because someone had studied esoteric mathematics in his past. So Max Born discovered some of the strange properties of quanta because he had studied matrices in college. At the time, matrices were interesting mathematical constructions developed in calculus but had no known practical application. Now they do. As in a matrix the numbers may not be commutative—that is, 3 + 2 might not equal 2 + 3—so it is with properties of certain quanta.
Gribbin notes: "Wave mechanics is no more a guide to the reality of the atomic world than matrix mechanics, but unlike matrix mechanics, wave mechanics gives us an illusion of something familiar and comfortable." (117)
We finally get to the main observation concerning probabilities and particles. "It is a cardinal rule of quantum mechanics that in principle it is impossible to measure certain pairs of properties, including position/momentum, simultaneously." (121)
While this does sort of make sense since quanta are both waves (with motion) and particles (in a position), Gribbin’s conclusion? “There is not absolute truth at the quantum level.” (120) Is he absolutely sure about that?
Gribbin notes that quantum mechanics explains why the sun shines, when according to “classical theory” it cannot. (Kind of like bees flying…) When he quotes Heisenberg as saying “We cannot know as a matter of principle the present in all its details,” Gribbin states: "This is where quantum theory cuts free from the determinacy of classical ideas. To Newton it would be possible to predict the entire course of the future if we knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe; to the modern physicist, the idea of such a perfect prediction is meaningless because we cannot even know the position and momentum of even one [Gribbin’s italics] particle precisely." (157)
Gribbin notes perhaps the greatest curiosity about quantum physics, that particles like electrons seem to change their properties or state when they are being observed. "In quantum physics the observer interacts with the system to such an extent that the system cannot be thought of having an independent existence. By choosing to measure position more precisely, we force a particle to develop more uncertainty in its momentum, and vice versa." (160)
Gribbin tells us that to him the best way to explain this is that there are multiple universes in different dimensions that intersect with each other. To his credit, Gribbin does not bring personal beliefs like these until the last chapter, and he is direct about it, even admitting that it sounds more like science fiction. So we get to see the discoveries of the mysteries of quantum physics without much getting in the way other than the mystery itself. He understands that the reader might not see things his way, but he sees his multiverse hypothesis at least as good as any of the others. Also, unlike many scientists in academia, he is not afraid to mention the anthropic principle.
This reviewer recognizes that unless I go back to school, I will never have a completely clear understanding of quantum physics, but In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is about the best introduction to the subject that I have read (and I have tried a few).
Gribbin, John. In Search of Schrodinger's Cat (p. 236). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.