For both prospective university physics students and those with a more general interest in understanding how our universe works, a book which aims to demystify quantum physics, and which is coauthored by probably the most famous living presenter of physics in Britain, Brian Cox, would certainly seem to be an appealing prospect. Making sense of the counterintuitive world of quantum is precisely what ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen’ aims to do, but it doesn’t quite manage this with full aplomb.
With the authors previously co-writing, Why Does E=mc2?: a work which takes on the hefty burden of clarifying Einstein’s theories of relativity, their leap towards explaining how the universe works at a sub-atomic level for the general reader can certainly be seen as a brave one, and, despite containing truly accessible and engaging sections, the project cannot be judged to be an overwhelming success.
That said, for students who want to gain some understanding of both the counterintiuitive oddities of quantum physics and the importance of the field’s development for our understanding of the universe today, the merits of The Quantum Universe can certainly be seen, at least in part. As a key component of many undergraduate physics courses at UK universities such as Manchester, where Brian Cox is currently serving as professor of particle physics, the early chapters of Cox and Forshaw’s book are likely to spark readers’ enthusiasm for getting to grips with this tricky subject matter.
Strangeness of the Subatomic World
With a promising beginning which takes as its focus the bizarre and seemingly illogical nature of the subatomic world, Cox and Forshaw put a clear emphasis on the reader’s need to disregard all common sense assumptions about the world in which we live in order to get their head around our quantum universe: a process which is both disconcerting and liberating at the same time.
However, many of the detailed theoretical explanations which follow in later chapters can sometimes feel like treading through a ‘dense-soup’ of subatomic particles – which, as Cox and Forshaw explain, is what the apparently empty vacuum of space is actually made up of.
A complex topic covered in a consistently bright tone
Excepting the somewhat tangential epilogue on dwarf stars which ends the work, Cox and Forshaw’s book is not overtly mathematical in its content, and can be celebrated for its consistently bright and breezy tone, which guides the reader throughout the explanations, even through some of the more challenging moments.
Notably, Cox and Forshaw frequently urge their readers to ‘read that sentence again to ensure you understand it’, as they are fully aware of the counterintuitive nature of many of the ideas they are tackling. Indeed, Cox’s success in making physics accessible through his popular television programmes, including his series beginning in 2011, Wonders of the Universe, can certainly be celebrated too in much of the book.
Mind-boggling but engaging
Even if the concepts may boggle your mind and you don’t quite come out on the other side with full understanding of what has just happened, Cox and Forshaw’s explanations are enjoyable and engaging nonetheless. In terms of the content covered by Cox and Forshaw in The Quantum Universe, this is diverse and will be recognisable to those studying introductory courses on quantum physics at university.
They address concepts of wave–particle duality, a non-technical description of the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, energy levels in atoms, the physics of semi-conductors and transistors, and the Standard Model of particle physics.
Making way for new concepts in the modern world
Well-known names such as Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman also make their appearances throughout the work and Cox and Forshaw do an excellent job of elucidating readers about how the field has developed thanks to a flood of experimental data streaming in over the past century, and sweeping away the old assumptions of classical physics – bringing along scientists like Newton with it – and heralding in a new age, beginning, in part, with Einstein’s theories of Relativity.
Incidentally, even Einstein famously struggled to get his head around the quantum nature of the universe – so, if you’re struggling, don’t worry!
If we do manage to make it to the end of the book, thanks to Cox and Forshaw, we can leave safe in the knowledge that, in some circumstances, light behaves like a stream of particles and in other circumstances it behaves like a wave, and that, according to quantum, both interpretations and neither interpretation of light’s behaviour is correct.
Movement as an Illusion
What is more, particles can be in two places at once, what we think of as movement is an illusion, and that if something can happen, it does happen (hence the title of the work). With all of this in mind, despite the density and dryness of some of the theoretical sections of the work – which would be better gleaned from standard undergraduate physics textbooks – there is a sense of both wonder and joy in the oddities of our quantum universe which is celebrated by the authors, and which, for any prospective physics student at university, is certainly something which is worth fostering.
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