Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of RealityTakeaway: There is a reason that the concept of paradigm shifts was originated in science history.

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Science is a weak area for me.  I only had one science class in college and it was one of the weakest teachers I had in college.  And my high school science was not any better.  I took high school physics, but do not remember it at all.  Of the sciences, physics, especially, seems to trickle into many other areas.  Physicists work on Wall Street constructing models for investing.  Philosophy and theology have been affected by the understanding of quantum physics.  And at least part of the attraction of physics is that so few seem to really understand it.  There is a quote in the book that is repeated several times, “Anyone that is not shocked by Quantum Physics does not really understand it.”

Quantum is the story of a paradigm shift from Newtonian to Quantum physics.  This is a history of science book with a large dose of biography.  I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein about two years ago and a biography of Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb) about a year ago.  So some of the biography of the people was familiar.  But Kumar did a good job explaining enough of the science so that the reader that is not incredibly familiar with physics can understand what the big deal was about each of the major steps along the way.

I started the book because I really am interested in the physics.  But what struck me most was the paradigm shift.  It really was about young men fighting against their mentors to bring one more step into place. Then those same young men being stepped over when they were the mentors.  One of the early scientists that was unfamiliar to me (as were the majority of the characters) made a comment about ideas not changing as much as it was that the people that held the ideas eventually died.

My understanding of Einstein at the end of Issacson’s book was of an old man that fought against the idea of Quantum Physics because it did not fit his notion of what science was to be about.  The central argument between Bohr and Einstein is about whether there is a reality that we just cannot currently explain or if unexplainable part of quantum mechanics (the jumping of particles, the fact something may not exist until it is measured, etc.) are part of the finished understanding of reality.  Einstein was not completely off base. But this author really uses Einstein to show that a serious push back is important to help ideas form.  In fact the whole post-script of the book is about how Einstein was not as wrong as has been though.  As recently as a year before this book was originally published (2008) there were new studies going on, that confirm most of Bohr’s beliefs, but still hold out some to Einstein.

One of the other major contributions to my thinking was how much the scientific process requires people to take different positions.  If there are no alternative sides, then no one is thinking about what might be wrong.  Because science is such a specialty, and so few people can really understand at in-depth levels what is going on at the outer limits of science it is relatively easy for a group think to occur.  This is true of any specialty or even a small organization or company.

Eventually I am going to get into the actual science. But I will back in and keep reading more about the history.  It is fascinating.

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