When I was a student at Princeton in the early 1950s, I had a nodding acquaintance with Albert Einstein. My freshman year, he walked by my dormitory every day on his way to the Institute for Advanced Study. Often I found myself on the sidewalk as he passed by and we nodded to each other. I have read many a biography of his life since then marveling in them all, but none more than Manjit Kumar’s Quantum.
Kumar’s book is a biography but not just of Einstein’s life but his thought processes, as well as the dozens of famous theoretical physicists who impacted and aided him in his work — especially Neils Bohr who carried on a debate with him over opposing views of quantum physics for the last 30 years of his life.
For most people, quantum theory — which attempts to describe the atomic and sub-atomic worlds — is a byword for mysterious, impenetrable science, and for many years it was equally baffling for the most brilliant physicists (and for some it still is). In Quantum, the author gives us a dramatic and superbly written account of this fundamental scientific revolution and the divisive debate at its core. For those with great scientific curiosity it may still not make the propositions clear, but the reader will appreciate an army of scientists that contributed so much to our understanding of nature. The chronology of every great contribution to physics of quantum theory, beginning in 1858 up to the present, will be worth the price of the book to some. The glossary of terms will be equally valuable to others.
When not in the company of serious physicists, I feature myself as one. And while I could not understand clearly all of the science Kumar attempted to make known to me, it in no way reduced the joy I felt of almost being with these great men and women as they met and wrote of their discoveries. Their discoveries were not often verified in a laboratory, but, rather, agreed upon because they fit physical observation and allowed for reasonable mathematical solutions. Their research involved what were called “thought experiments”
Kumar describes a conference held in Belgium in 1927 where of the 29 people invited, 17 went on to receive the Nobel Prize. At times, Kumar made me feel like I was in the room. I studied physics at Princeton with John Wheeler, a close colleague of Einstein who barely tolerated my ignorance. This book clarified problems I had then, but that have at last been put to rest. Heisenberg, Planck, Born and Shrodinger all came alive to me.
The concept of entanglement — a quantum phenomenon in which two or more particles remain inexorably linked no matter how far apart they are — is elegantly explained, as is the mystery of Dr. Schrodinger’s cat being simultaneously dead and alive. As exciting as any is the famous uncertainty principle, that holds it is not possible to simultaneously measure certain observable things like position and momentum.
This is not a book for everyone — just everyone with a lot of scientific curiosity and a sense of wonder about exceptionally