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Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed [Paperback]

Dr. Jim Al-Khalili
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2004
In this lively look at quantum science, a physicist takes you on an entertaining and enlightening journey through the basics of subatomic physics.

Along the way he examines the paradox of quantum mechanics—beautifully mathematical in theory but confoundingly unpredictable in the real world. Marvel at the Dual Slit experiment as a tiny atom passes through 2 separate openings at the same time. Ponder the peculiar communication of quantum particles, which can remain in touch no matter how far apart. Join the genius jewel thief as he carries out a quantum measurement on a diamond without ever touching the object in question. With its clean, colorful layout and conversational tone, this text will hook you into the conundrum that is quantum mechanics.

“Takes readers on a fascinating journey. Al-Khalili [uses] simple and clear language and he provides excellent graphics. This is mandatory reading for undergraduates with or without a science background.”—Library Journal

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Review

Al-Khalili succeeds in making the quantum world understandable. Well, almost. THE GUARDIAN --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Dr Jim al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist and senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey. He has twice been nominated for the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Award for the Public Understanding of Science and is the Institute of Physics Schools and Colleges lecturer. He is the author of BLACK HOLES, WORMHOLES AND TIME MACHINES and has appeared on Radio 4's LEADING EDGE and the BBC's TOMORROW'S WORLD and HORIZON programmes.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best intro to quantum theory for non-specialists June 18 2003
By J.C.
Format:Hardcover
I became interested in quantum theory after reading Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" about six months ago; since then I have gone to some lengths to find a book that would explain quantum theory in a way that was non-formal enough for me to understand but not excessively simplified. Until recently, I hadn't found any thing that fit this description -- until, that is, I ran into this book at my local book store. It is BY FAR the best explanation of quantum theory for someone who is relatively (or even completely) unfamiliar with it. The author explains the theory in a step by step fashion, not leaving anything implied or unsaid, but in no way is insulting to one's intelligence. As a philosophy grad student, I especially appreciated the chapter on the various interpretations of quantum theory, including the 'many-worlds' interpretation that reminded me very much of David Lewis's metaphysical system (in which all possible worlds actually exist somewhere). I bought this book at 10:30 p.m. and had read half of it by the time I went to bed, and finished the rest of it the next day. It is that good! Highly, highly recommended.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars complex topic - wonderful book Aug. 24 2003
Format:Hardcover
This book is beautiful in all aspects. It is very well written, interesting and has great illustrations. The author takes a very complex and many times seemingly illogical topic and makes it both understandable and interesting. We are also given alternative views and told when the state of the art falls short of understanding. I would like to see a second edition in 10 years covering new advances in the topic. One of the best books I have seen in science in the past few years.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The World As We Can't Imagine It! April 29 2004
Format:Hardcover
Biologists have to a great degree ignored the strange world of quantum physics. As Chet Raymo (actually an Astronomer) observes it is difficult to see how quantum effects could really touch the scale at which we function. Raymo in fact believes that such effects may cancel each other out at our scale. I think, however, that this may be a narrow, if comfortable, view. Roger Penrose has proposed that consciousness itself may be a quantum effect and Johnjoe McFadden believes that quantum effects may very well have bearing on the evolution of life. As a biologist I am struck with the inability of scientists to actually define life, other than by the reductionist view that it is a series of chemical processes. There are in fact many chemical processes that are not life and so this does not quite satisfy.
However, this is not to get into heavy metaphysics or to take on some mystical view of life. It is, however, to acknowledge the basic weirdness of life that fits, it seems to me, into the weirdness of the quantum universe. I suspect that future scientists will discover that life has more to it than fits the conventional view. But then our view of the universe, including life, has always changed with new insights and I doubt that we have (or will ever) reach full understanding of it all.
Jim Al Khalili has caught the excitement of the old and new developments in quantum theory in "Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed." Once you get past the somewhat glitzy format, you find a solid and fascinating description of the extremely weird quantum world in which matter acts like waves and waves act like matter and in which mere observation can and does change results.
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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not another popular press quantum book Nov. 3 2003
Format:Hardcover
I must admit I bought this book for the pictures, glossy pages and arty production just to add to my collection of physicist authored books. If you can ignore the pretentious british spelling centred around colours and flavours etc etc ad nauseam, however, what you will get is a remarkably up to date and extensive exploration of what the quantum is. What I particularly liked about this book is that you don't read about the author's interpretation of the wavefunction equation but instead explore its various attributes and meanings and uses. I certainly rate this book at the top of its genre.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
112 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best intro to quantum theory for non-specialists June 18 2003
By J.C. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I became interested in quantum theory after reading Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" about six months ago; since then I have gone to some lengths to find a book that would explain quantum theory in a way that was non-formal enough for me to understand but not excessively simplified. Until recently, I hadn't found any thing that fit this description -- until, that is, I ran into this book at my local book store. It is BY FAR the best explanation of quantum theory for someone who is relatively (or even completely) unfamiliar with it. The author explains the theory in a step by step fashion, not leaving anything implied or unsaid, but in no way is insulting to one's intelligence. As a philosophy grad student, I especially appreciated the chapter on the various interpretations of quantum theory, including the 'many-worlds' interpretation that reminded me very much of David Lewis's metaphysical system (in which all possible worlds actually exist somewhere). I bought this book at 10:30 p.m. and had read half of it by the time I went to bed, and finished the rest of it the next day. It is that good! Highly, highly recommended.
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars complex topic - wonderful book Aug. 24 2003
By William Tillier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is beautiful in all aspects. It is very well written, interesting and has great illustrations. The author takes a very complex and many times seemingly illogical topic and makes it both understandable and interesting. We are also given alternative views and told when the state of the art falls short of understanding. I would like to see a second edition in 10 years covering new advances in the topic. One of the best books I have seen in science in the past few years.
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than Quantum Mechanics for Idiots Aug. 21 2006
By Robert Dell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a very good book for the math-impaired know-something-but-not-much crowd. I took a semester of physics (mechanics) in college, and have read "A Brief History of Time" and watched the PBS thing on string theory, and something about quantum physics on the Discovery Channel, and decided that I wanted to know more. Being over 50 with an aging brain, I needed something that wasn't too technical, that didn't go too fast, but wasn't a children's book, and this was it.

The first half of the book covers some history and the discoveries that made the development of quantum physics necessary. Also covered is the "weirdness" that seems to occur in the microscopic (quantum) world. I'll have to admit that on first reading, I only 'got' about 75% of what the author was presenting. If I read it again, I'll probably get more. And this is why I'm giving it 4 stars instead of 5.

The second half of the book is not quite as brain intensive and covers speculation on the WHY of quantum physics. (Yeah, weird, huh? They know how it works, buy not why it works.) In addition, some particle physics is covered, an overview of quarks and stuff, the effort toward a unified field theory (including a bit on string theory), some really cool discoveries, some unexplainable discoveries (like negative energy), why transistors and MRI's work, and quantum computers.

I would like to have this book on my shelf so I could offer it to my friends to read. I will probably re-read parts of this book in the future. I wish I read this book 35 years ago.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books for those with novice to intermediate knowledge Jan. 29 2006
By PaulC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has one of the best presentations of Quantum Mechanics that I've read. It explains three to four questions deep on most all concepts. The author seems to anticpate your next question and then deals with it a few pages later. The historical background leading up to the current theories is excellent without getting bogged down. He cuts to the heart of the priciples and allows you to understand the difference between wave probability and actual quantum behavior at any given instant. He then goes on to practical applications that take advantage of this strange behavior. Now I won't have to go to my grave without a decent understanding of the current state of the theory of matter.
44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I'm still perplexed April 25 2005
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I love quantum mechanics. I just don't understand it. It is to me like embracing yes and no at the same time, like believing and not believing in the same instant, like being and not being as one. Yes, Virginia there is something beyond our understanding. And the wonderful thing about the postmodern world is that we know for a certainty (in as much as we can be certain about anything) that we really don't understand this world we have been thrown into. QM proves it. As Al-Khalili points out again and again, even the top physicists turn away when certain questions are asked and let them pass because they have no answer.

But I don't think it really matters what we think. The plain truth of the matter is that from our perspective as macro-creatures in a macro-world, with macro-minds and macro-mind modules molded by the evolutionary mechanism for a macro-world, quantum physics just doesn't make sense--or I should say, it makes good sense if we ignore the fact that the sense it makes is totally different in some very fundamental ways from the world in which we live.

Einstein understandably abhorred the spooky action at a distance--the strange entanglement of particles which has no basis in our conception and no basis in any science prior to QM--and worse yet, no explanation. (We prove things we don't understand.) As Al-Khalili makes clear no one knows how to account for the fact that no matter how far apart two entangled particles get, they seem to be in instantaneous "communication" with one another. Theoretically they could be on opposite sides of the universe. Well, the phrase "opposite sides of the universe" is meaningless, as is so much of our terminology when applied to the very, very large or the very, very small.

And "communication" is the wrong word since instant communication would in effect be information moving in excess of the speed of light, which is still impossible. (I wouldn't bet the ranch on it staying that way, however.) Yet, what other word is there? No one knows! Measure the spin of one entangled particle and you can bet that ranch that the other particle will have the predicted spin. Hocus-pocus, abracadabra--or something like that.

All of which tells me--all of what little I know about quantum mechanics--that the world is not as we think it is, and that down, down the dimensions to a very deep, deep "place," way, way tinier than we can imagine, way, way tinier than the Planck limit, there is--well, by definition, zero, but by imagination possibly a wondrous world so far beyond our ken that it might as well be magic. Indeed, it is surely beyond our notions of magic whatever, however, wherever, whenever it is.

Despite the wonderful color photos and drawings and fanciful artwork, and despite the detailed and even laborious explanations, I am afraid that Al-Khalili's book is not going to unperplex the perplexed. Frankly, QM cannot be understood; it can only be appreciated. And it can only be fully appreciated by those who understand the math. This book, in keeping with a long-standing book-biz tradition contains no math, or at least very little. Well, Schrodinger's equation appears on page 63, and is parsed, as it were, but not solved. It's really there more for decorative effect than anything else, as part of the artwork.

But quantum mechanics can be used. The amazing thing is that applications based on our understanding of it are used everyday all over the world in lasers, computers, CDs, DVDs, rockets to the moon, etc. In other words, it's the same old story. We know enough to employ the ideas for our benefit, but not enough to come to a full understanding or a final theory. My guess is we never will. Scientific knowledge expands like a widening circle in a pond of water as we know more and more about the very large and the very small and the very distant in time and space; but the pond is unimaginably large, large beyond the limits of our senses and our instruments, possibly infinitely large. And so the circle expands and expands but never reaches the shore, possibly because there is no shore.

Incidentally, of course neither the infinitely large nor the infinitely small are allowed in either cosmology or quantum mechanics. There is the Big Bang and no knowledge of what there was before the Big Bang, and of course there is nothing smaller than Planck and the "logic" of QM would allow.

Or is there?

The strength of this book is in the colorful and imaginative artwork and in the mini-essays from physicists such as Paul Davies, Chris Dewdney, Ron Johnson and others along with Al-Khalili's enthusiastic text. But if you think relativity was strange--well, comparing the strangeness of relativity to the strangeness of QM is like comparing the complexities of tick-tack-toe to those of three-dimensional chess.

By the way, Al-Khalili assures us on the copyright page (alluding of course to the "diabolical" Erwin Schrodinger) that "No cats were harmed in the making of this book."
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