Ms Kanta

Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.

Intense pre-university course that should’ve been properly updated

Introducing Quantum Theory: A Graphic Guide to Science’s Most Puzzling Discovery
J.P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate

One wonders why popular physics books do not come with illustrations more often. In fact, a surprising number of books are published that explain quantum physics in words alone, with not a single illustration to accompany them other than a fancy Hubble picture on the cover. It works, in many cases: Pedro Ferreira’s The Perfect Theory and Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn are two excellent examples. But wouldn’t a few pictures be able to convey so much more than words, especially when famous experiments are discussed? McEvoy and Zarate aim for exactly such a concise visual presentation of quantum theory, but unfortunately overstretch themselves by covering too much material in their little book. Quantum Theory cover

The book is part of the ‘Introducing’ Graphic Guides series. Other works in this series cover topics such as Freud, Wagner, Semiotics and Success: it seems to be the illustrated mirror of the Oxford University Press ‘Very Short Introductions’. The pictures in Quantum Theory are a mix of illustrations, by Zarate, and photographs. These photographs include quite brilliant historical illustrations: for instance, there is a picture of Mendeleev’s original periodic table, which looks entirely different visually from the one that is used today. As the illustrations indeed do prove to be very helpful, one realises that a little colour might have made them even better, especially in the chapter on absorption spectra. A black-and-white illustration of hydrogen absorption in the visible spectrum does not really help to explain the concept. Also, the illustrations in the ebook version were much too small, at times making it impossible to read the words in the comics, and it was impossible to zoom in – if you have the choice, go for the paper book.

This book is not the first on quantum theory by a long stretch, nor is it the best one. Surprisingly, however, it does present itself as such in a cringe-worthy reference to John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat (1984): “Until now, this was the best lay person’s guide to how the theory emerged.” This entirely unnecessary arrogance is the first indication that this book may be slightly outdated, although this datedness does not fully become clear until the end. The book was actually first published in 1992. The edition reviewed here is from 2014, but the final chapter of the book shows that this edition has not actually been updated at all. For instance, this chapter claims that John Wheeler is still alive (he died in 2008) and shows a “web page recently down-loaded from the Internet” from 1995.

There are more instances in this book where the authors make claims they perhaps should have left out. As they explain Planck’s contribution to quantum mechanics, they remark, “Ironically, his discovery was accidental, caused by an incomplete mathematical procedure. An ignominious start to one of the greatest revolutions in the history of physics!” Ignominious? Really? They are calling Planck’s discovery shameful? Well, that’s one approach that is entirely different from all of the works (and the Nobel committee) who lauded him as one of the great founders of quantum physics.

The authors make one big mistake in their book that is going to cost them: they assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. After a few chapters, their explanations demand that the reader’s secondary school chemistry and physics has not gone rusty yet: this knowledge is directly referred to several times. The book then continues to teach quantum mechanics up to an extraordinarily advanced level for a short popular work: at Oxford, this would be second-year university physics; at Coursera, this is advertised as final-year undergraduate or graduate physics (I took both courses).

For those who can stomach such a dense approach, however, this book is well-written. It does not shy away from equations, which are explained in detail: it is explained what each letter in the equation stands for. McEvoy and Zarate give a complete picture of quantum mechanics, rather than the polished verbal version many reviews give. Yet at one point, the authors even demand knowledge of matrix multiplication, which is only taught in the most advanced mathematics classes in high school. This makes the book an excellent introduction to quantum physics for other scientists, who may specialize in mathematics, engineering or computer science, but not for a wider readership than that.

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April 2015

What I’m Reading

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