Allen Lane, pp. 240, 14.99
Helgoland is a craggy German island in the North Sea. Barely bigger than a few fields, it reaches high above the water on precipitous cliffs and is famous for its sweet air. It has a town and a harbour, and the 1,000-odd inhabitants speak a distinct dialect. In the summer of 1925, the 23-year-old physicist Werner Heisenberg went there to sort out his
Helgoland is a slightly misleading title for Carlo Rovellis inspiring, chaotic, delightfully unsatisfactory book of popular quantum physics. It isnt about Heisenbergs months there or his mathematical insights; Helgoland is Rovellis shorthand for Heisenbergs pellucid state of mind. On Helgoland, says Rovelli, Heisenberg almost got the philosophical approach to quantum theory right. Ever since, weve been getting it wrong.
The discovery of a quantum world began with experimental results. Certain things were taking place in German physics labs that should not be. Atoms were misbehaving. When scientists in Gttingen and Berlin crouched in front of the latest clever electronic instruments and peered, Alice-like, into the wonderland of the very small, what they saw shocked them bolt upright. Wonderland was ridiculous. There, logic was (and still is) fundamentally different.
Translated up to our size, the following nonsense was apparently perfectly possible: throw a full tankard across the hall in a Bierstube, let somebody notice (as it passes overhead) that this tankard has, say, a picture of a stag on it, and the beer inside turns green. That simple observation hey, look, theres a stag on the tankard and ping! the contents of the mug changes colour. But if nobody notices the decoration, the beer stays brown. In the quantum world, two defining qualities that have nothing to do with each other (tankard decoration and beer colour) can influence one another just because somebodys looked at them. Its a place for hucksters, not respectable people. Even Einstein, who got his Nobel Prize for figuring out the existence of this strange new world, was appalled: God does not play dice! he said. Dont you tell God what to do, retorted the Danish theoretician Niels Bohr, who was less prudish.
Heisenberg worked for Bohr, and on Helgoland started to make sense of this wayward behaviour of small things. The central point was, he discovered, that everything in quantum land works with exactly the same logic as it does up here except in one particular: the order in which you look at things matters. In the quantum world, if the observer had only kept his mind focused on the beer, and paid no attention to the pretty decoration, it would have stayed brown. Some physicists tried to get round the metaphysical implications of this idea by insisting that there were hidden things secretly linking the subatomic equivalents of beer colour and mug decoration. Others have given up all pretence of common sense and believe ideas much more outlandish than God, such as the existence of multiple worlds in which all possible beer mug decorations and beer colours get to exist somewhere, really and truly, all at once.
Rovelli has a different idea. He says reality doesnt exist. The reason physicists have been led astray by bonkers theories in the 100 years since Helgoland is because they cant bear the thought of not being real.
It was at this point a third of the way through the book that I mimicked Heisenberg and took my first long, befuddled walk. Reality doesnt exist? What on earth does that mean? Rovellis favourite example is a red chair. Red doesnt exist, for sure everyone knows that philosophical chestnut: its just the way our brains make sense of light of a certain wavelength. But Rovelli also insists that nothing else about the chair exists either its weight, its shape except in its relationship to the person looking at it. And you can keep banging away at this type of argument until you get to the level of the atoms forming the chair. Insisting that anything about this red chair needs to exist outside of relationships is metaphysical neediness.
Part of the fun of Rovellis book is that your immediate reaction to his ideas repugnance or delight isnt meaningless. Without mathematics or experiment, by page 81 your thoughts are at the frontier of quantum theory, and its time for your second brain-cudgeling walk. If things exist only by virtue of their interaction with other things, what happens to them between times? Do they vanish? Do instants of time also not exist? Does it even make sense to talk this way? Oh dear, oh dear.
Rovelli devotes a precious chapter to the work of the second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who also insists there is no ultimate layer of real things. Another chapter 15 pages, getting on for a tenth of this short book is as unexpected as green beer: its about a fierce philosophical argument Lenin had in 1909 with Aleksandr Bogdanov, the co-founder of the Bolshevik party.
I have digressed, says Rovelli, once this exuberant and not particularly helpful passage is over, then promptly tips off the other side of his bar stool and quotes Douglas Adams:
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
In other words, its our skewed perspective, not the scientific evidence, that makes us want to believe in the reality of red chairs and atoms.
Rovelli is not a kook. Hes a world-famous professor of quantum gravity. His relational interpretation of quantum theory is discussed seriously by leading philosophers and physicists. Hes ebullient about his ideas, not crazed by them. He doesnt do a particularly good job of describing in laymans terms the fundamental oddity of quantum theory hes too easily distracted and too poetical; his metaphors are a little too breathless. But that shouldnt put you off. Do what I did after my third Helgoland walk: read the opening pages of Leonard Susskinds superb popular science book Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum. Anybody who can use fractions can understand them. Then set back to work with Helgoland. What follows is joyous excitement.
It feels exactly right that Rovelli teaches at the University of Marseille. In the same spirit as hes written this book, I imagine him strolling along the quai, his sleeves rolled up, hailing the devil-may-care crowd by the boats and then, with a quick glance to either side, slipping into that crazy little bar where the tankards are flying and the beer turns green if you look at it funny.
- Physicist and jazz pianist combines music and science at Rochester - University of Rochester - May 9th, 2021
- Are We on the Brink of a New Age of Scientific Discovery? - SciTechDaily - May 9th, 2021
- The First-Ever Evidence of the Multiverse - Interesting Engineering - May 9th, 2021
- Not Even This by Jack Underwood review fatherhood, philosophy and fear - The Guardian - May 9th, 2021
- College majors that earn the most money | Personal Finance | stltoday.com - Suburban Journals - May 9th, 2021
- MIT Researcher Says UFO Research Could Lead to New Laws of Physics - Futurism - May 9th, 2021
- The coherence of light is fundamentally tied to the quantum coherence of the emitting particle - Science Advances - May 1st, 2021
- Tulane part of Navy/Army-funded research on improving communication - Newswise - May 1st, 2021
- Introduction to Quantum Algorithms via Linear Algebra, 2nd Ed (MIT Press) - iProgrammer - May 1st, 2021
- Cornell Researchers Aid in Discovery of Anomalous Muon Wobble, Challenging Understanding of Natural World - Cornell University The Cornell Daily Sun - May 1st, 2021
- Linda Perry And Soleil Moon Frye On Role Of Music In Punky Brewster Reboot, Kid 90 Documentary - Forbes - May 1st, 2021
- Turning the tide in educational inequity - Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - May 1st, 2021
- Carlo Rovelli's Helgoland argues that all reality is relative - New Statesman - April 28th, 2021
- UW physicists contribute to quantum experiment that may lead to discovery of new subatomic particle - Dailyuw - April 28th, 2021
- Muon g-2 Particle Accelerator Experiment Results Are Not Explained by Our Current Theories of Physics - SciTechDaily - April 28th, 2021
- NTT Research and Tokyo Institute of Technology Target Two Applications for CIM - Business Wire - April 28th, 2021
- Partners Capital Strengthens Global Leadership Team with Appointment of Senior Executive in Asia Pacific - PR Newswire UK - April 28th, 2021
- In Quantum Physics, Reality Really Is What We Choose To Observe - Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence - April 27th, 2021
- Post-doctoral Fellow in Experimental Condensed Matter Physics job with THE UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG | 252748 - Times Higher Education (THE) - April 27th, 2021
- The Great Question Is Our Universe Extremely Unnatural, a Weird Permutation? (Weekend Feature) - The Daily Galaxy --Great Discoveries Channel - April 27th, 2021
- In the midst of it all we are not alone - Global Sisters Report - April 27th, 2021
- Black holes, string theory and more: Q&A with physicist Brian Greene - Space.com - April 27th, 2021
- Theoretical Physicist Prof Arvind appointed Punjabi Varsity Vice Chancellor - The Tribune - April 27th, 2021
- Optimal Information About the Invisible: Measuring Objects That You Cant See - SciTechDaily - April 27th, 2021
- IISER physicist Prof Arvind is Punjabi University VC - The Tribune India - April 27th, 2021
- Researchers Visualize the Motion of Vortices in Quantum Superfluid Turbulence - SciTechDaily - April 17th, 2021
- Quantum computers are revealing an unexpected new theory of reality - New Scientist - April 17th, 2021
- Will we ever know exactly how the universe ballooned into existence? - Livescience.com - April 17th, 2021
- The Big Theoretical Physics Problem At The Center Of The 'Muon g-2' Puzzle - Forbes - April 17th, 2021
- Albert Einstein Death Anniversary: How did the greatest physicists of all time die? - Free Press Journal - April 17th, 2021
- 'The Disordered Cosmos', A Contemplation of the Exclusionary Culture of Physics - The Wire Science - April 17th, 2021
- Scott Aaronson Winner of 2020 ACM Prize In Computing - iProgrammer - April 17th, 2021
- The Disordered Cosmos review: An insider take on physics and injustice - New Scientist News - April 17th, 2021
- Book Review: A Cosmologist Throws Light on a Universe of Bias - Undark Magazine - April 17th, 2021
- Realization of an ideal Weyl semimetal band in a quantum gas with 3D spin-orbit coupling - Science Magazine - April 17th, 2021
- The God Equation Review: One String Theory to Rule Them All - The Wall Street Journal - April 12th, 2021
- This Tech Dinosaur Just Took a Game-Changing Step in Healthcare - The Motley Fool - April 12th, 2021
- NIT Srinagar hosts webinar on pursuing Quantum career in age of neural networks - Kashmir Reader - April 12th, 2021
- The windswept German island that inspired quantum physics - Spectator.co.uk - April 8th, 2021
- A Tiny Particles Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics - The New York Times - April 8th, 2021
- New computing algorithms expand the boundaries of a quantum future - Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory - April 8th, 2021
- Quantum Computing Revolution: Is it the next big thing? - Analytics Insight - April 8th, 2021
- Scientists Are Baffled By A Mysterious Particle That Defies Physics And Violates The Laws Of The Universe - BroBible - April 8th, 2021
- Officials Aim to Diversify the U.S. Quantum Workforce Early On - Nextgov - April 8th, 2021
- Searching for New Physics in the Subatomic World - SciTechDaily - April 8th, 2021
- Herms collaborates with artists on Watches and Wonders 2021 scenography - Wallpaper* - April 8th, 2021
- Quantum Physics to Disrupt Geospatial Industry over the Coming Decade - GIM International - April 4th, 2021
- The mystery of the muon's magnetism | symmetry magazine - Symmetry magazine - April 4th, 2021
- 6 Quantum Computing Stocks to Invest in This Decade - Investment U - April 4th, 2021
- Can science explain the mystery of consciousness? - The Irish Times - April 4th, 2021
- 'Spacekime theory' could speed up research and heal the rift in physics - Big Think - April 4th, 2021
- Where did the antimatter go? - The Express Tribune - April 4th, 2021
- Ultracold Quantum Collisions Have Been Achieved in Space for the First Time - Scientific American - March 23rd, 2021
- I'm Agonizing over My Naive Realism - Scientific American - March 23rd, 2021
- Six fabulous facts about the Standard Model - Symmetry magazine - March 23rd, 2021
- Cryptocurrency: Can it be climate conscious, and if so, how? - Landscape News - March 23rd, 2021
- Physicists Create Quasiparticles That Bind Together Two Differently Colored Particles of Light - SciTechDaily - March 6th, 2021
- Element Sixs DNV-B1 Announced Winner for the Quantum Category at the 13th Edition of the SPIE Prism Awards - AZoM - March 6th, 2021
- Tech that sees through the earth could help build cities of the future - The Times - March 6th, 2021
- Physicists Just Found 4 New Subatomic Particles That May Test The Laws of Nature - ScienceAlert - March 6th, 2021
- Living in a simulation: Is Universe a Neural Network? - The Indian Wire - March 6th, 2021
- This Is the Fastest Random-Number Generator Ever Built - Scientific American - March 4th, 2021
- Physics - The Tiniest Superfluid Circuit in Nature - Physics - March 4th, 2021
- New research indicates the whole universe could be a giant neural network - The Next Web - March 4th, 2021
- New History of the Physics Department by Raj Gupta and Paul Sharrah Published - University of Arkansas Newswire - March 4th, 2021
- International Business Machines : The Decade of Quantum Computing Is Upon Us, IBM Executive Says - Marketscreener.com - March 4th, 2021
- Quantum Tunneling in Graphene Advances the Age of High Speed Terahertz Wireless Communications - SciTechDaily - March 4th, 2021
- Subtle quantum phenomenon found to alter chemical reactivity for the first time - Chemistry World - March 4th, 2021
- Physicists believe faster-than-light travel is indeed possible with new warp drive - ZME Science - March 4th, 2021
- Exclusive! Ashwin Sanghi on his dream to cast Sushant Singh Rajput in 'Keepers Of The Kalachakra' series: He was like an excited child when it came to... - March 4th, 2021
- Can god be disproved using the laws of physics? An expert explains how it depends on perspective - Scroll.in - March 4th, 2021
- Global Quantum Computing Technologies Market will grow to at CAGR 15.89% from 2020 to 2027 KSU | The Sentinel Newspaper - KSU | The Sentinel... - March 4th, 2021
- Quantum Technology Innovation Hub to transform local businesses - University of Birmingham - March 4th, 2021
- And So It Begins Quantum Physicists Create a New Universe With Its Own Rules - The Daily Galaxy --Great Discoveries Channel - February 18th, 2021
- Quantum Theory May Twist Cause And Effect Into Loops, With Effect Causing The Cause - ScienceAlert - February 18th, 2021
- Extracting information stored in 100,000 nuclear quantum bits - Advanced Science News - February 18th, 2021
- Light and a Single Electron Used to Detect Quantum Information Stored in 100,000 Nuclear Quantum Bits - SciTechDaily - February 18th, 2021
- IBM Adds Future Developer And Software Details To Its Quantum Roadmap - Forbes - February 18th, 2021
- Physics - A Superconducting Qubit that Protects Itself - Physics - February 18th, 2021
- Black Quantum Futurism receives the Knight Foundations new art and technology fellowship - WHYY - February 18th, 2021