“What is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics,” by Adam Becker


“In What Is Real? Adam Becker tells a fascinating if complex story of quantum dissidents…An excellent, accessible account.”―Wall Street Journal

***** Final Book Club Results *****

On April 16, 2019, the book club met to discuss “What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics,” by Adam Becker.  The arithmetic mean of the rankings, on a five-point scale, are as follows-

Readability: 4.58

Content: 4.33

Overall: 4.5

Comments include:

“Enjoyable for science/philosophy person.”

“A good primer on quantum theory for beginners as well as an interesting discussion of the intersection of philosophy and science.”

“Fascinating survey.”

“Fascinating social and historical exploration of science (in general) and physics (quantum).  Loved it”!

“Loved this book-the organization, the content, the layout of information, and the background material made this a page-turner.”

The Players:

Niels Henrik David Bohr

Born in 1885 to Christian Bohr – a professor of physiology – and Ellen Adler Bohr in Copenhagen, Denmark, Niels Bohr made numerous contributions to the field of physics over the course of his life, up until his death in 1962.

Albert Einstein

The book discusses the Bohr–Einstein debates-a series of public disputes about quantum mechanics between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Their debates are remembered because of their importance to the philosophy of science. Despite their differences of opinion regarding quantum mechanics, Bohr and Einstein had a mutual admiration that was to last the rest of their lives

Werner Karl Heisenberg

Werner Karl Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics. He is known for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which he published in 1927. Heisenberg was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the creation of quantum mechanics”

Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach (18 February 1838 – 19 February 1916) was an Austrian physicist and philosopher, noted for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number and the study of shock waves. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and through his criticism of Newton, a forerunner of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger

Despite devising both the defining equation and the defining thought experiment of quantum physics, Erwin Schrödinger was never comfortable with what he helped to create. His “Schrödinger’s Cat” paradox, published in 1935, was an attempt to expose the flaws in the physics that flowed from his eponymous equation. And yet, that cat – both dead and alive – has become an icon of quantum physics rather than a warning against its shortcomings.

David Joseph Bohm

The de Broglie–Bohm theory, also known as the pilot wave theory, Bohmian mechanics, Bohm’s interpretation, and the causal interpretation, is an interpretation of quantum mechanics. In addition to a wavefunction on the space of all possible configurations, it also postulates an actual configuration that exists even when unobserved.
Hugh Everett III (/ˈɛvərɪt/; November 11, 1930 – July 19, 1982) was an American physicist who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics, which he termed his “relative state” formulation.

Thomas Samuel Kuhn

Thomas Samuel Kuhn, (born July 18, 1922, Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.—died June 17, 1996, Cambridge, Mass.), American historian of science noted for “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962),” one of the most influential works of history and philosophy written in the 20th century.

Wolfgang Ernst Paul

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli (25 April 1900 – 15 December 1958) was an Austrian-Swiss physicist, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945.

John von Neumann

John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and polymath.

John Stewart Bell

John Stewart Bell (28 June 1928 – 1 October 1990) was an Ulster Scot physicist from Northern Ireland, and the originator of Bell’s theorem, an important theorem in quantum physics regarding hidden variable theories

Max Born

Max Born, (born Dec. 11, 1882, died Jan. 5, 1970), German physicist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954 with Walther Bothe for his probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Anton Zeilinger

Anton Zeilinger (German: [ˈtsaɪlɪŋɐ]; born 20 May 1945) is an Austrian quantum physicist who in 2008 received the Inaugural Isaac Newton Medal of the Institute of Physics (UK) for “his pioneering conceptual and experimental contributions to the foundations of quantum physics, which have become the cornerstone for the rapidly-evolving field of quantum information”.

Discussion Questions:

1.Adam Becker’s “What is Real?” provides a carefully-researched but non-technical overview of “the unfinished quest for the meaning of quantum physics.” Did you enjoy his writing style? Was the book accessible?

2.According to Bohr’s “Copenhagen interpretation,” largely devised in the 1920s, subatomic particles have no definite properties until they are measured. One can only calculate the probability of a certain result—for example, the location of an electron—and the very act of measurement changes matters.
Until his death, Einstein insisted that this bizarre picture couldn’t be correct, but most colleagues disagreed.

Which side is correct? Quantum physics works, so does the actual state of reality matter?

3. A century after its inception, quantum mechanics continues to puzzle us with dead-and-alive cats, waves “collapsing” into particles, and “spooky action at a distance.” Did this book serve to demystify some of those concepts?

4. The book displays the intersection of philosophy and science. The Copenhagen School, although not monolithic, thought it foolish to ask if “what is real?” if the question cannot be meaningfully answered. Do you agree with this proposition? Is not science the rejection of that which cannot be tested and proven untrue? What is the utility of positing the existence of infinite quantum universes that, even if “real,” can never be perceived?

5. Finally, did you like this book? Would you recommend it to a friend lacking a background in science?

The next book club selection?

About the Author:

Adam Becker is a science writer with a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Michigan and a BA in philosophy and physics from Cornell. He has written for the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, Scientific American, New Scientist, and others. He has also recorded a video series with the BBC and several podcasts with the Story Collider. Adam is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Office for History of Science and Technology and lives in California.

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