Sunday, June 27, 2010
What I know about physics could be summed up by an AP Physics student--perhaps better than I could say it myself. So I come to this book with no more than a simple understanding of the science. Gilder attempts to cover the two theories in physics that have changed and are still changing the world a century after they were first put forth--relativity and quantum mechanics. And while relativity is something you can wrap your mind around, quantum mechanics was far from intuitive. Gilder spends the first half of the book describing the world of academic physicists pre-World War II, when collaboration was the rule, and scientists moved across borders frequently, published papaers together, and modified theories amongst themselves. But quantum mechanics posed problems that were difficult to resolve in this manner and the war forced physicists to take sides--in a way that mattered a great deal.
In the Cold World atmosphere that followed, progress was more fractured, and academia was tainted with politics--luckily, the book gets more coherent at this point, because the theories get harder to follow.
From the New York Times Review:
"Bell’s theorem, stated in a 1964 paper: You cannot have a theory consistent with his experimental predictions of quantum mechanics and have that theory describe the world in a completely local way. To put it differently, we may be troubled by various aspects of quantum physics and hope it can be replaced by some other theory that will capture its predictions but go deeper, giving a local, un-entangled account. But Bell showed that if a certain measurable inequality was confirmed experimentally, it would follow that any successor theory to quantum physics you tried to write would itself exhibit one of the strangest features of quantum theory: it will still be non-local."
The second half of the book is material that is more modern but that I am less aware of. It focus' on the work being done by a handful on contemporary physicists in CERN, and bell was the premier thorist of the bunch, known as 'the oracle of CERN'. Which is saying something. The world of modern physics has changed horses--the age of theroy has been replace by the age of experiments, and the knots of quantum mechanics are being gradually detangled.