Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Tale Of Three Book Reviews

OK, I thought I put this thing to rest already. But when I read this book review, it looks like I have to revive it, and give Gilder's book even MORE publicity! :)

I already mentioned the two different reviews on her book, and how each one is perceived quite differently by me. Now along comes a third review of the same book, published in the Washington Post, but this time written by a "... an old-line physics prof...", which makes certain passages in the review even more puzzling. Try this one:

With one exception: the world inside the atom. I would suggest that this strange world is one place the brain is simply not wired to understand. Oh sure, we can write equations and predict the results of experiments to umpty-ump decimal places, but there remains something essentially unknowable about the inside of the atom. It is the challenge of taking on this world and, if not explaining it, at least explaining why it is unexplainable that Louisa Gilder tackles in The Age of Entanglement.

Some background: Inside the atom everything, including matter and energy, comes in little bundles called "quanta." (The name derives from the Latin for "bundle" or "heap.") The old word for the science of motion is "mechanics," so the science that applies inside the atom, the study of the motion of things that come in bundles, is called "quantum mechanics." The basics of the science were developed in the early 20th century, and a major shift in the field took place with the discovery of what is now called "entanglement," in the 1960s and '70s. Gilder, therefore, splits her narrative into two parts, one dealing with early developments, the other with entanglement and its ramifications.

I'm not sure if the reviewer is using the example of "inside the atom" because this is what Gilder is using, but this is rather misleading at best. QM isn't about everything "inside the atom". A free electron can also be governed by QM (see the double-slit expt using free electrons, or any low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), etc... etc.). Furthermore, technically, a conduction electron is not "inside the atom", but rather isn't localize to any particular atom or location. Yet, QM is certainly applicable and more accurate here.

One can, of course, see an inconsistent with the description because the book is also describing quantum entanglement, which typically is demonstrated using light OUTSIDE of an atom. So that passage quote above not only gives a misleading impression that QM is only inside an atom, but anyone paying attention would also be confused by it.



Phys Student said...

Oh come on. This is a big problem with physicists. I give you that the statement is incomplete, but not wrong. If you are trying to motivate the average Joe to read a book about physics, you have to make it accessible to their knowledge and understanding. Everyone know about the atom; I wonder how many non-scientists know about diffraction.

If you are teaching a class then you have to be complete (although very few classes are actually complete), but for a general audience type of book, I don't see any problem with it.

By the way, I didn't read the whole review just the part you cite.

ZapperZ said...

But there ARE accurate description of physics for the general public! That's the whole point. Do a search on the Helen Quinn's essay that I've mentioned a few times! There's plenty of ways to describe physics accurately for people who don't understand physics. It doesn't have to be THIS careless!

I could also say that this is a big problem with the public - the lack of quality control and the willingness to settle for mediocrity, even if one is ignorant of it. If I were a someone who is trying to understand this particular physics, and I read that someone who knows it thinks that the accuracy is being compromised, I would demand for something better, not simply make excuses that "oh, this is good enough for their level". I've lost count how many times I had to correct a wrong understanding because someone read something where the author simply was careless in presenting the material. The writer of this review may not end up having to "clean up" the mess he made, but many of us do.

There ARE more accurate means to describe this. It is already widely know (if they know about atoms already) that QM works at that small scale, so emphasize THAT, rather than making the wrong impression that these are only for within an atom. Say it as directly as possible without dressing it up in unnecessary baggage.


Unknown said...

In case the opinion of a non-physicist is of interest to this site... I am reading Gilder's book now, and am astonished by its almost unique combination of literary style and lucid (to me) scientific explanations. I understand the nit picking-- has to be done, I suppose-- but if we all want to lessen the titanic ignorance among us on QM matters, this book is what the doctor ordered. We should be emailing our friends about it.
Bob Quinn