The Quantum Universe

I managed to finish a book for the first time in 2 years. My second child is now 2 years old, in case you find it odd that I’m proud of having read an actual book. Parents of small children will understand.

It took several tries to finish The Quantum Universe, partly because I had to go back over several of the earlier explanations before moving forward. I’m a big fan of Brian Cox’s TV shows, but not so much a fan of the co-author’s Jeff Forshaw’s articles in the Guardian, though I find most popular science journalism rather insubstantial.

In the end, I had to accept that several explanations in the book just weren’t good enough. It seems to have been rushed, probably to capitalize on Brian Cox’s current fame, without anybody taking the time to check that all the text actually makes sense. It must be hard to find editors who are brave enough to say when they don’t understand.

It also got unnecessarily hand-wavy at times. And I didn’t like how on the one hand it rightly discussed observed experimental behavior of the quantum world as being predictable via the maths, but then went on to describe that maths as being a mechanism that causes other effects rather than just being consistent with the observed effects. That feels like anthropomorphizing the maths, before we’ve really figured out if we have the most general model to think about things. I’m thinking particularly of the epilogue about how Pauli’s Exclusion Principle explains how electrons limit the mass of white dwarf starts. Maybe I’d find it more justified if there was some proper explanation of the exclusion principle, assuming there is one, but the book skips over that.

Like many people, I found the clocks analogy to be a distraction. I’d rather just see the maths used to explain probability waves and their wave interference. Plenty of people are afraid of maths, but the clocks explanation mostly just gives the false impression of understanding, while annoying people who are comfortable with a little calculus. Without the equations, I don’t feel like I’m on solid ground.

Reading it on the Kindle wasn’t particularly pleasant, because I had to flick backwards and forwards between the text and the diagrams. But as far as I can tell, the real book is not laid out much better. Again, I guess the book would have a more approachable layout if it wasn’t rushed.

As you can tell, I’m not qualified to judge this book properly. That’s because I am the target audience. I still feel a lack of understanding of quantum and particle physics that bothers me deep down. I hope to find the time to read Ramamurti Shankar’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics instead, to solve the problem properly. I’ve already enjoyed some of his Fundamentals of Physics lecture videos that Yale have made available online.

2 thoughts on “The Quantum Universe

  1. If you do find one that explains it well, please blog about it.

    If you’re into science in general, I can recommend trying a college level biology book. I’ve had great fun with a couple I borrowed. To my great surprise even more fun than I had when I recently read the outside-curriculum chapters of the 1200 page physics book I got in college myself 10 years ago.

  2. I haven’t read the Shankar book, but it seems to assume quite a bit of prerequisites. For something less mathematically demanding but still substantial, you could try volume 3 of the Feynman Lectures on Physics.

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