The Quantum Age: How The Physics Of The Very Small Has Transformed Our Lives by Brian Clegg
Review by Alicia Sometimes
American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg famously said, ‘After you learn quantum mechanics, you’re never really the same again’ and Danish physicist Neils Bohr wrote, ‘Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.’ Two well-versed quotes that let you know quantum mechanics is a massively important and complicated subject worthy of study. Although I have read the occasional book on quantum theory and delved further into what Hamiltonian mechanics or the Dirac equation might be, I would not know an eigenvector or linear transformation if they became a decorated feature wall in my house (maybe they are). I am a science enthusiast and not a scientist unfortunately. This is why Brian Clegg’s book, The Quantum Age is the perfect introduction to the larger (smaller) world of quantum physics for someone like me.
Brian Clegg is an author, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts at Cambridge University and editor of popularscience.co.uk, a website that reviews popular science books and includes interviews with authors writing on all aspects of science. He clearly understands storytelling and making concepts captivating. Following along the same linear path as the Stone, Bronze, Iron and Steam Age, Clegg writes that we are now living in the Quantum Age. Essentially that we would be lost without quantum technology, with our LCD screens, mobile phones and computers. The universe of quantum mechanics of course goes far beyond these inventions and is one of the most successful and often tested theories since its first appearance in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Quantum Age looks at many facets of quantum theory: placing special and general relatively in context; exploring the often cited Schrödinger equation (the infernal cat); explaining a wavefunction and what its ‘collapse’ means; entanglement and a myriad of fascinating facts around the subject. We read about Young’s double-slit experiments, Faraday, Einstein and Born but also dive into masers, qubits, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (the first scientist to observe superconductivity) and quantum tunneling.
When writing about the work undertaken with particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN), Clegg remarks about how it is usually described as particle physics not quantum physics. ‘The distinction is a bit like zoology and biology. Quantum physics, like biology, gives us the fundamentals of how quantum particles behave, while particle physics gives us details of the particle zoo, just as zoology tells us about specific animals. But all those particles studied by particle physicists are quantum particles.’ Clegg gives us an initiation into each concept raised and goes on to say, ‘all quantum particles are fermions or bosons referring to the mathematics that describes their behaviour.’
The language of the book is easily accessible and the stories around each topic are intriguing. When talking about synchrotrons, he likens the ‘waste’ product of synchrotron radiation as useful, the same way Marmite and Vegemite was to beer production (in other words, something valuable). In context of quantum encryption, he mentions the challenge of distributing entangled particles through optical cables. Clegg relates a story of how diamonds could be an option as they are relatively stable at room temperature. Within the pages there’s even some talk of levitating trains. He also cautions us, ‘Simply using the terminology of science, and specifically quantum physics, does not make something valid or useful.’
Written with small chapters on so many areas of physics, Clegg easily guides us along the way and is never too dry. The incredibly exhilarating and intricate subject of subatomic particles, probability and uncertainty can seem daunting or impenetrable but The Quantum Age is a wonderfully rich introduction to quantum mechanics and the narrative surrounding it. I’m off to investigate further.
Alicia Sometimes is a writer, poet and broadcaster. She is a regular guest on ABC 774 and Radio National talking books, film and culture. Alicia was a 2014 Fellow at the State Library of Victoria and writer and director of the science-poetry show, Elemental that toured extensively in planetariums around the world. She is passionate about arts and science and is currently working on a new show on particle physics.