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August 21, 2011

Page: 22/42

Home > 2011 Issues > August 21, 2011

Quantum breakthrough: The enigmatic story that turned physics on its head
By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, Jim Baggott, Oxford University Press, Pp 469(HB), £ 16.99.

THOSE were exciting times. Almost every week a new milestone was set, only to be overtaken by another soon. The world of physics had never ever witnessed such galaxy of scientists as in the first half of the 20th century. The mother of all these discoveries of course was the quantum theory. “Almost everything we think we know about the nature of our world comes from one theory of physics. This theory was discovered and refined in the first thirty years of the twentieth century and went on to become quite simply the most successful theory of physics ever devised. Its concepts underpin much of the twenty-first century technology that we have learned to take for granted.”

The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments by Jim Baggott narrates the gripping story of this phenomena that is on-going and still mesmerising. Beginning with Max Planck’s Discovery of ‘Quantum of Action’ in December 1900, Baggot follows the story through the physicists who led the scene. There is a procession of names: Planck, Rutherford, Walter Nernst, Einstein, Neil Bohr, J J Thompson, Prince Louis de Broglie, W Pauli, Paul Dirac, Paul Ehrenfest, Erwin Schrodinger, Fermi, the list is long thrown in between are two world wars, which changed the academic research world in an unimaginable way. For instance, in April 1933, Adolf Hitler ordered that all Jewish academicians and scientists should be evicted from the German universities. One-fourth of the seats fell vacant. not only the Jewish academicians, but some top German scientists also chose to leave, sickened by Hitler’s orders. Germany’s loss was the gain of top universities in the West with most of them snapped up happily.

The biggest fall-out, if one may call it that, was the physics war, the race to make the first ‘super bomb.’ ever since the first nuclear fission was discovered by Fermi, physicists world over were supported by their governments to launch the search for the bomb.

Baggott has divided the book into six parts and 40 chapters recounting the 40 key moments in the history of quantum from 1900 to 1994. The Epilogue brings us to the present, circa 2010. Several of the physicists, the dramatic personae in this constantly unfolding plot went on to be Nobel laureates. Einstein, an early champion of quantum theory, became one of the most determined critics. Baggott describes the Bohr-Einstein debate “one of the most profound debates in the history of science.” In a humorous comment, in a letter to Schrodinger, Einstein, confessing his change in attitude to quantum theory says, “No doubt, however, you smile at me and think that, after all, many a young whore turns into an old praying sister, and many a young revolutionary becomes an old reactionary.” Einstein rejected the theory saying ‘God does not play dice’ referring to the uncertainty and chance embedded in this theory. Bohr said “anybody who is not shocked by the theory has not understood it.” American physicist Richard Feynman claimed “nobody understands it.” Baggott says “To anyone tutored in the language and the logic of classical physics, this theory is at once mathematically challenging, maddeningly bizarre, and breathtakingly beautiful.”

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He has authored several science books, but quantum obviously has his attention the most. Though a thoroughly high-physics book, Baggott has kept the academic side to the minimum adding drama to keep the narration engrossing. Subject biography is not an easy job. And Baggott has accomplished the job well. Quantum comes alive, reaching out to the reader, seeking to be ‘understood.’ An excellent read.

(Oxford University PresGreat Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6DP)

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