The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner
Quantum theory is the most successful theory of our time. No question. Every prediction it has portended by its rigorous mathematics has been experimentally verified.
And even though it contains leagues of strenuous calculations that only the formally initiated (mathematics, physics and some chemistry graduates) can aspire to take on manually, it produces science’s greatest of mind-f***s we’ve encountered in nature. As it turns out, nature is weird. And though nature itself definitely doesn’t mind, some of us do!
The Quantum Enigma is written by Bruce Rosenblaum and Fred Kuttner, both experts in quantum theory and its applications. Bruce is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Fred is a physics lecturer at the same university. The Quantum Enigma addresses the inherent weirdness of quantum theory and the different approaches physicists take to interpret or reconcile its evoked enigmas.
To the uninitiated, the book may be difficult at times, but it is an extremely rewarding reading experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever had to ponder so much reading a single book. I often found myself reading for 15-20 minutes, only to pause and think about what I’d just read for an additional 10 minutes. To be completely honest, this is the first book in a decade I’ve now read twice.
The book is intelligently structured. It begins with an anecdote from when on of the authors (Bruce) met Albert Einstein during his physics graduate studies. Einstein famously disliked quantum theory because of its implications. Two of his most quoted phrases, “God does not play dice” and “I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.” are particularly enlightening about his antagonistic view of the theory. Both phrases are quoted from intense discussions between him and his ‘frenemy’, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who was a staunch defender of quantum theory AND its implications. (Tangentially, there are several more quotes about quantum mechanics by notable physicists to be found on the book’s web page. I particularly like the one by Richard Feynman: “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.”)
Feynman: That’s right I said it. Nobody!
What follows the short anecdote is an intriguing fable of a physicist who encounters a shaman who supposedly can reproduce quantum experiments on a macro-scale with humans. This evidently disturbs the physicist and plants the seed for the coming discussions of quantum weirdness.
The tell-tale physics fable is followed by a logical historical perspective in tandem with the historically relevant experiments and natural phenomena (oscillating electromagnetic fields, wave mechanics, etc.) that laid the foundations for quantum physics.
More to the point, the enigma itself stems for the fact that a conscious observer irrevocably influences a system under inspection. The act of observation yields a result, created by the observation itself! Up until the point of observation, the results are correctly predicted by quantum mechanics. But without the observation, the results are superpositions of possibilities, coexisting synchronously. A wave of probabilities, suspended between objective realities. The discussion of these intangible facets of nature in The Quantum Enigma are coherent, well written, and engaging. It renders you perplexed yet curious of what we consider reality and where the line is drawn in the sand what constitutes reality and what doesn’t.
This is inherently weird for humans. Our brains did not evolve to account for nanoscale mysteries. They evolved to help humanity hunt and survive the entropies and onslaughts of the wilderness. Niels Bohr said once: “Anyone not shocked by quantum theory, has not understood it”. You totally get where he is coming from, but it is also a bit clouded by a sense of bias, that the world should be the way it is, because that’s how we see it. Reading this book has helped me overcome this intrinsically biased view. Nature is strange to us, and it’s okay. Either way it is fascinating.
Without going into any more specific details, The Quantum Enigma addresses the role of consciousness in quantum theory, explores some of its technological applications and quantum entanglement, which includes transporting information faster than the speed of light… in a nutshell. If you are interested in learning more about the book’s contents (without actually reading it), you can check out the aforementioned website dedicated to the book. There you will find all sorts of additional goodies such as amusing quotes, a complete chapter walkthrough, and original drafts of the chapters along with a bunch funny little illustrations the authors drew to accompany the text. It’s really quite endearing.
A couple of examples of the writers’ creative drawings. As I said. Endearing.
I highly recommend this book, but only to those who are ready to have their minds blown.