Book Review: The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics. James Kakalios. Gotham Books; Penguin Publishing. 2010. Paperback. $17.

I am a geographer by vocation, so why am I reviewing a book on quantum mechanics? I’ll be the first to admit my own ignorance about many topics, even topics within my own field. No one has absolute, complete knowledge, certainly not me, and I want to use the time I have to learn more about fields and disciplines I may have been too short-sighted to devote time to earlier in my life.

Science has always fascinated me, captivated my imagination. As a boy, one of my favorite pastimes was riding my three-speed bike to the local library. In the air conditioned comfort of the Mid-Continent Public Library, I would scour every book dealing with rockets, astronomy, electronics, genetics, science fiction, or science fact.

As an adult, I fear losing my intellect, and of succumbing to ignorance and mediocrity. I consider myself a Lifetime learner and an autodidact in astronomy, history, and economics. Astronomy and cosmology show us where we are going. History and astronomy are not so different; astronomy is the science of interpreting old light, of how the cosmos “used to be.” Economics is the study of choice; history is often the study of old choices. Geography is the study of the spatial distribution of nouns, people, places, things, and ideas, like astronomy, economics, and history. Thus, geography is a natural, holistic discipline which frames all other disciplines.

James Kakalios wrote a book, The Physics of Superheroes, which I have not read. Having read many articles detailing the mostly impossible, or highly improbable, physics of Superman, the Hulk, and other superheroes, I wasn’t interested in pursuing more of the same. James brings his familiarity of comics into his treatment of quantum mechanics, though. Now, having read ASQM, I may have to read his treatment of superheroes.

buck-rogers-larry-crabbe-in-chapter-12-everettThe first chapters capture much of early pulp science fiction, from the 1920s and 1930s. Fans of science fiction are familiar with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Jules Verne (who pre-dates the 20th century, I know) and how their technologies either ignited scientific inquiry or how their technologies modified contemporary technology. As a kid, my earliest memories are of “Johnny Socko and his Giant Robot,” and of the old “Flash Gordon” movie serials which would run on TV. By drawing from these cultural memories, James is able to instantly make his work interesting and relevant to me.

Later, in Chapter 5, Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s experiments with the ‘intrinsic field’ are detailed. The intrinsic field refers to Dr-Manhattan-jonathan-osterman-watchmenall forces, except for gravity, working to keep all matter held together. In 1959, Dr. Osterman was conducting research at the Gila Flats Research Facility in the Arizona desert. The nature of his most recent experiments dealt with analysis of the effects of removal of the intrinsic field. Unfortunately for Dr. Osterman, he was accidently locked in the Intrinisic Field Chamber. His body matter was completely dissassembled, but by processes not fully understood, Dr. Osterman was able to re-constitute himself into a new form. From that point forward, the world would know him as Dr. Manhattan, of the Watchmen fame.

The intrinsic field referenced in Watchmen is pure fantasy. However, Dr. Kakalios explains the real science behind the energies binding atoms and matter together. Particle accelerators slam particles together to see what zooms out. Electromagnetic, strong and weak forces glue protons and electrons and gluons and an entire zoo of other particles together. He then segues into a discussion of the wave nature of electrons and atoms, and the “planetary model” of atomic structure.

The planetary nature of atomic structure, a/k/a the Rutherford-Bohrs Model fills the need to begin an understanding of the components of an atom. Using the model, we can then begin asking questions about how electrons handle changing charge, losing or gaining energy, and how energy in form of wavelength of light cause electrons to react in different ways. Different elements react to electromagnetic energy and respond by either absorbing or emitting energy at different wavelengths. By examining these reactions we can determine how a substance is composed.

At a cosmic scale, gathering light from distance stars, or distance stellar objects, we can separate the light into an emission spectrum. Using the emission spectrum, we can determine the elemental composition of the object. So, knowing how particles work at a sub-atomic scale can help us understand what happens on a cosmic scale.

220px-The_Amazing_Colossal_ManBeing a fan of 1950s science fiction movies also helps. I’ve seen most of the movies James refers to, The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Amazing Colossal Man, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, to name a few. Add them to your Netflix queue. All of these deal with the effects of radioactivity. Radioactivity refers to the spontaneous movement of electrons within an atom to other energy levels. The luminous dial on older analog watches used the light emitted from the movement of electrons to lower energy levels to allow us to see where the hands on the dial were located.

Knowing the behavior of electrons helps us date, or age, objects in our environment, from our own Earth, to bodies found during archaeological excavations. Many different elements decay at different rates. For example, Carbon-14 decays to Carbon-12, and Uranium-238 decays to Uranium-234 and will eventually decay to Lead, given enough time. The rates of decay are well-established and given a substance the age of the substance can be determined. For instance, during a person’s life, the amount of Carbon-14 in our skeleton changes. When the person dies, the amount of Carbon-14 becomes locked in the body’s cells as the biological processes which move Carbon-14 through the body stops, no more eating, breathing, or pooping. Archaeologists can then compare the amount of Carbon-14 in the body to current levels and determine the age of a skeleton.

If you are a fan of orchestras, Kakalios uses the extended analogy of a concert hall to explore how electrons move from energy level to energy. But, the movement of electrons is not simply about moving from one “shell” to another, from the “pit” to the “orchestra,” or from the “orchestra” to the “mezzanine.” No, at the quantum level, we can consider “seating.” We can begin thinking about moving electrons from the stage, to the pit, to the orchestra, to the mezzanine, and back.

Why would we want to act upon electrons at such a tiny scale, though? Because the memory in our computers works like this, the memory in our cellphones, our tablets, pretty much all of our devices of play, convenience, and necessity use the knowledge of moving electrons around in very precise and specific ways.

But the movement of electrons also means considering other materials which allow us to control the movement of electrons, like insulators. Moving electrons around, controlling their behavior also means knowing something about materials and substances, those materials which might have electrons to “lend” for moving around, like gold, and those which don’t, like silica, or silicon, or glass.

By fully realizing how sub-atomic particles work, how they behave, how they act and interact with each other, the knowledge then expresses itself in new methods, new technologies, new theories, new substances, and new technologies. Technologies already in development based on our current understanding of sub-atomic particles include quantum computers, solid-state storage technology, and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

Readers looking for a moderately involved, yet math-free, treatise on physics should enjoy this book. The references to pop culture science are not sporadic; Kakalios references what seems to be every science fiction movie filmed prior to 1970 throughout his book. Doing so not only makes Kakalios’ book a fine discussion on quantum mechanics but a sort of historical account of the intertwined relationship between hard science and science fiction. Even if one is not so keen on the science, reading about how science impacted comics, and perhaps vice-versa, still makes for a good reading investment.

Yes, if you are a newcomer to quantum physics, or looking for a different perspective on quantum physics, then read this book.

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