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Saturday 19 July 2014

Quantum Weirdness

I finally got my name in a real book! I mean a proper hardback book, that is going to be read by more than a few dozen people! It’s called 30-Second Quantum Theory, and it’s the latest in a popular series of “30-Second” titles from Icon Books. It’s a really great-looking package, printed on top-quality glossy paper with stunning illustrations and an appealing visual design.

The content is first class, too. Contrary to what you might think from the title, this isn’t a journalistic dumbing-down of quantum physics for the lazy reader – it’s as serious a popularization of the subject as you’re going to find anywhere. The book is edited by Brian Clegg, and includes contributions from seven other authors in addition to Brian himself. And right down at the bottom of the list of contributing authors is – Andrew May! I’m not sure if they put me last because I’m the least well-known, or because I’ve got the smallest number of contributions (both are true).

The book is organized in double-page spreads, of which I’m responsible for five. The most Fortean-sounding of these is “Zero-Point Energy”, because of the way the phrase has been appropriated by New Age mystics and free-energy conspiracy theorists. But I barely touch on the wackier aspects of the subject (although Brian mentions that it’s “beloved of fringe science” in his introduction). Zero-Point Energy is weird enough even if you stick to the well-established facts!

Another of my contributions is on the Quantum Zeno Effect, which I also wrote about in Fortean Times last year (FT309, Christmas 2013). There’s also one on the quantum double-slit experiment, which is such a basic aspect of quantum physics that it’s in danger of sounding mundane. But Wheeler’s delayed choice version of the experiment – which I mention in a sidebar – is every bit as weird as the quantum Zeno effect or zero-point energy.

I also contributed a two-page biography of Erwin Schrödinger. In fact this can be seen online – it’s the second item in the slideshow on this page (if you click on the image, a bigger version pops up). It’s a shame that Schrödinger is only known to most people for his silly “cat” paradox, which he never meant people to take seriously (he was attempting to refute a ludicrously arrogant interpretation of quantum mechanics that was current at the time). In fact he was one of the most innovative physicists of his generation – for reasons that have nothing to do with cats.

In his spare time, Schrödinger is said to have dabbled in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. That’s also true of the other person I wrote a two-page biography of: Brian Josephson. The work that made him famous – and earned him a Nobel Prize – was done at a very early age, in his twenties. By the time he was in his thirties, however, he was drifting away from mainstream science, feeling that it ignored large areas of human experience – things like mysticism and the paranormal – that it ought to be trying to explain. This led Josephson to set up his Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University... and to become one of the most outspoken heretics of modern science.

Needless to say, 30-Second Quantum Theory is packed with other good stuff besides the handful of contributions I wrote myself. There’s quantum gravity, quantum biology, quantum chromodynamics and quantum tunnelling. You can read about superluminal experiments, about waves that travel backwards in time, and about the many-worlds hypothesis. There’s a whole section on the ramifications of quantum entanglement (“Spooky Action at a Distance”) – including the dubiously named “quantum teleportation” effect, which I wrote about last week at Mysterious Universe. (It’s worth reading Brian Clegg’s comment at the bottom of that article, as well, since Brian explains the details of the effect better than I do).


Kid said...

Congratulations, Andrew. Next stop - the WORLD!

Peni R. Griffin said...

Ah, nothing's prettier than your own name in print! E-publication just doesn't feel as real, does it? May it sell enough to generate royalties!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid and Peni! As I've said before, Kid, I'm sure you've got at least one bestseller up your sleeve if you decided to turn your hand to book-writing yourself!

Fortunately, Peni, I don't have to worry about waiting for royalties, because I got a flat fee in advance. A very generous figure, in fact - by far the highest per-word rate I've received. to date. I was very lucky to get the job (thanks entirely to Brian Clegg's support) - I may have a long wait before I get anything else as lucrative!