Saturday, January 12, 2008

Book Review: Einstein Defiant

If reading this book did anything for me, it reinforced my long-held belief that the physicists of the early twentieth century were some of the most brilliant people who have ever lived.

Niels Bohr once said that "anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." That quote is essentially what this book is about. The characteristics of quantum theory that Bohr found so shocking are precisely the same characteristics that Einstein so defiantly refused to accept. This book focuses on Einstein, but much of it is centered around disputes between the two giants of the quantum revolution, Einstein and Bohr. That's probably why the front cover of this book reads "Einstein Defiant" (obviously the title of the book), and the back cover reads "(Bohr Unyielding)."

I'm not going to pretend that I understand quantum theory—I don't. It's way over my head. When I took Modern Physics in undergrad I would frequently leave class and spend the walk to my next class crying in despair because I could not understand what was going on. (Why didn't I drop it, you ask? It was a graduation requirement, unfortunately.) My cousin used to complain about classes in which he could barely understand his foreign professors. Well, imagine a class where your professor didn't lecture with an accent, didn't just lecture in a different language, but lectured with something that isn't even verbal! Quantum theory is explained through mathematical equations, and I'm not a mathematician.

So in that respect I can sympathize with Einstein. The strength of this book lies in the way that Bolles reinforces the different views taken by Einstein and Bohr regarding physics. Neither of them were particular enamored of mathematics. Both saw math as a way to explain what was happening. But while Bohr was satisfied with mathematics merely describing a workable theory, Einstein wasn't satisfied until that theory could describe actual physical phenomena. It was perhaps Einstein's (only?) failure that he ended up on the wrong side of the debate. Modern physics seems to have accepted Bohr's stance that there is no physical reality that can be understood beyond the theory. (Bohr would say the complementary theory; Heisenberg said the Uncertainly Principle.)

I have a few complaints with the book, mainly that Bolles is overly and often annoyingly fond of analogies. After a while you get sick of them. But I can overlook all that for the excellent way he laid out the philosophical differences between Bohr and Einstein. I came away from this book with an enormous respect for Einstein, and my view of Bohr (who I often proclaim as my favorite scientist) was slightly marred, I must admit.

A minimal (if superficial, in my case) familiarity with physics and quantum theory is required to really enjoy this book, I think. But if you are a lover of scientific history like I am, and especially of early twentieth century physics like I am, you'll love this book. It describes the quantum revolution in terms of the personalities involved, which is always more interesting than the hard science, from a historical perspective anyway. All the big names are present: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Born, Planck, Heisenberg, Pauli, de Broglie, Lorentz, Compton, Dirac, etc.

Lindsey's Grade: B+


Kim said...

I find it interesting that you couldn't follow the mathematics. When I studied Marx I loved learning the mathematics involved. Even if it wasn't necessarily true math it was interesting to imagine it that way. Your review makes physics sound interesting. I never thought I would say that.

Lindsey Lou said...

Well perhaps you would have fared better in Modern Physics than I did. But with only a Calculus II background, I was lost.