What Is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

What Is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

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Adam Becker

Subjects: LCSH: Quantum theory—History.

First Edition: March 2018

Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of
Hachette Book Group, Inc. 
The Basic Books name and logo is a trademark of the Hachette Book Group.

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Book Details
 356 p
 File Size 
 11,523 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 2017059314 (ebook)
 9780465096060 (ebook) 
 2018 by Adam Becker

About the Author
Adam Becker is a science writer with a PhD in astrophysics from the University of
Michigan and a BA in philosophy and physics from Cornell. He has written for
the BBC and New Scientist. He has also recorded a video series with the BBC
and several podcasts with the Story Collider. Adam is a visiting scholar at UC
Berkeley’s Office for History of Science and Technology and lives in Oakland, CA.

The objects in our everyday lives have an annoying inability to appear in two
places at once. Leave your keys in your jacket, and they won’t also be on the
hook by the front door. This isn’t surprising—these objects have no uncharted
abilities or virtues. They’re profoundly ordinary. Yet these mundane things are
composed of a galaxy of the unfamiliar. Your house keys are a temporary
alliance of a trillion trillion atoms, each forged in a dying star eons ago, each
falling to Earth in its earliest days. They have bathed in the light of a violent
young sun. They have witnessed the entire history of life on our planet. Atoms are epic.
Like most epic heroes, atoms have some problems that ordinary humans
don’t. We are creatures of habit, monotonously persisting in just one location at
a time. But atoms are prone to whimsy. A single atom, wandering down a path in
a laboratory, encounters a fork where it can go left or right. Rather than choosing
one way forward, as you or I would have to do, the atom suffers a crisis of
indecision over where to be and where not to be. Ultimately, our nanometer
Hamlet chooses both. The atom doesn’t split, it doesn’t take one path and then
the other—it travels down both paths, simultaneously, thumbing its nose at the
laws of logic. The rules that apply to you and me and Danish princes don’t apply
to atoms. They live in a different world, governed by a different physics: the
submicroscopic world of the quantum.
Quantum physics—the physics of atoms and other ultratiny objects, like
molecules and subatomic particles—is the most successful theory in all of
science. It predicts a stunning variety of phenomena to an extraordinary degree
of accuracy, and its impact goes well beyond the world of the very small and
into our everyday lives. The discovery of quantum physics in the early twentieth
century led directly to the silicon transistors buried in your phone and the LEDs
in its screen, the nuclear hearts of the most distant space probes and the lasers in
the supermarket checkout scanner. Quantum physics explains why the Sun
shines and how your eyes can see. It explains the entire discipline of chemistry,
periodic table and all. It even explains how things stay solid, like the chair
you’re sitting in or your own bones and skin. All of this comes down to very tiny
objects behaving in very odd ways.
But there’s something troubling here. Quantum physics doesn’t seem to
apply to humans, or to anything at human scale. Our world is a world of people
and keys and other ordinary things that can travel down only one path at a time.
Yet all the mundane things in the world around us are made of atoms—including
you, me, and Danish princes. And those atoms certainly are governed by
quantum physics. So how can the physics of atoms differ so wildly from the
physics of our world made of atoms? Why is quantum physics only the physics
of the ultratiny?
The problem isn’t that quantum physics is weird. The world is a wild and
wooly place, with plenty of room for weirdness. But we definitely don’t see all
the strange effects of quantum physics in our daily lives. Why not? Maybe
quantum physics really is only the physics of tiny things, and it doesn’t apply to
large objects—perhaps there’s a boundary somewhere, a border beyond which
quantum physics doesn’t work. In that case, where is the boundary, and how
does it work? And if there is no such boundary—if quantum physics really
applies to us just as much as it applies to atoms and subatomic particles—then
why does quantum physics so flagrantly contradict our experience of the world?
Why aren’t our keys ever in two places at once?

Table of Contents
Title Page
Prologue: The Impossible Done
Part I: A Tranquilizing Philosophy
1 The Measure of All Things
2 Something Rotten in the Eigenstate of Denmark
3 Street Brawl
4 Copenhagen in Manhattan
Part II: Quantum Dissidents
5 Physics in Exile
6 It Came from Another World!
7 The Most Profound Discovery of Science
8 More Things in Heaven and Earth
Part III: The Great Enterprise
9 Reality Underground
10 Quantum Spring
11 Copenhagen Versus the Universe
12 Outrageous Fortune
Appendix: Four Views of the Strangest Experiment
About the Author

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The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.
—Ursula K. Le Guin