Not Knowing Quantum Physics Doesn’t Make Me An Idiot

quantum kumarEvery now and then during the course of my Self-Doctorate, I will hit a book that will feel like hitting a mudbank.  The book will be large and dense and require a very close reading and many re-readings of key or complex paragraphs or pages.  And then, perhaps, the wheels of my blog will spin and whine in the mud, and I will gain forward progress only slowly and haltingly. 

Such an event is now upon us.  My current read is Manjit Kumar’s QUANTUM: Einstein, Bohr, And The Great Debate About The Nature Of Reality.  Yeah.  Just some light reading after the holidays.

But this book is worth it.  It is a marvel.  I very often feel, when it comes to non-fiction books,  that I occupy that no-man’s land between specialist and idiot; I’ve got the basics, maybe in some fields a bit more, but I’m hungry for more.  Yet, no one writes books for blokes like me.  There are tigers to the right of me and kittens to the left of me.  Either the books are written above my head and for the specialist, or else they are “popular” books so dumbed down with stupid jokes and silly pictures that they are too annoying to read and too insubstantial even if they weren’t.

So-called popular books did not used to be written as idiot’s guides and especially for dummies.  If you go back and read the older popularizations of complex subjects, you’ll find the authors treat the reader as an adult, not some drooling dimwit who needs to be spoonfed confectionary goop while mummy makes choo-choo train noises.

Of course, on the other hand, let’s be frank:  when it comes to physics— okay, so I’ve read a few books, taken a few courses.  But I’m not going to be able to bring to the (reading) table a vast arsenal of memorized Greek-letter variables and handy math tricks.  Try to explain something to me using matrix mechanics, and I’ll give you same perplexed slightly panicky look I gave my ex when she would ask me which pair of shoes she should wear with a certain outfit

Kumar’s book offers what a popularization of science should offer: real meat on the platter—not red raw and incomprehensible, mind you, but not mushily overcooked and sliced into bite-size chunks either.

If you look at a science book written by an author who wants to make the best seller lists, you will see made obvious the golden rule of science book publishers:  with each equation in the book, the author will halve his sales.   Therefore, these authors will leave out every equation they possible can.

Kumar is obviously aiming for a broad audience, and he does indeed leave out most equations (and thankfully, all matrix mechanics).  And yet, I do not feel as if he is speaking down to me.  Sure, I wish there was a popularization of physics math, but I’ve never found one.

But then again, you see, math is just a language, like English—or actually, more like Latin, which follows its own rules a bit better.  So, done correctly and with an artist’s touch, it is largely possible for an author to translate the language of math into the language of English, and that’s fine with me, but it does not have to mean that the translation comes out as baby talk.  You can leave my chicken on the bone, thank you; I won’t choke.

Granted, as with any translation, there’s a loss.  But that’s no excuse to take a hatchet to the cranial output of Shakespeare in order to make him fit into, say, the French language— the proper precision cut will do—a little off the top, perhaps the sides left a bit shaggy—but for God’s sake, put that overturned bowl back on the table!

So in the coming days, I’ll be posting entries as I slog my way through Kumar’s book on the history of quantum physics.  I’m not yet sure how the book will be processed in, and conveyed out of, the sausage factory of mind, but I can promise you this—there will be no babytalk here.

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One thought on “Not Knowing Quantum Physics Doesn’t Make Me An Idiot

  1. I can empathise with your tigers/kittens issue – a few years ago, I tried to read ‘The Road to Reality’ by Roger Penrose. Fell at about page 50. It was the last of many such falls, and the proverbial straw. I decided that I was perfectly capable of understanding what he was banging on about, I just didn’t have the maths and physics background. So I signed up to the Open University, and have got far enough along that, this year, I get to learn – matrix mechanics! ;-)
    Incidentally, if you do want to learn it, for free, try Khan Academy – amazing project, effectively a free online education to degree level, especially in maths.

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