Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Quantum' by Manjit Kumar - Book Review

‘For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it’ - Niels Bohr

‘God does not play dice’ - Einstein

The book’s name is Quantum by Manjit Kumar. I was literally compelled to write a review, I could not keep it within myself.

Before you go on, assuming you are even remotely interested in science, take my word and go read it. It is a thrilling experience to say the least. It is worth many times over its price. If I were in college, I would have irritated every guy to hell till they read it.

Warning: There are some spoilers below.

A friend suggested me that the book was an awesome read. I chanced upon it at a bookstore in Bangalore. After getting used to reading pirated ebooks, I was still contemplating on buying it when I opened a random page. This was the excerpt that caught my eye.

(On first discovering transformation of one element to another due to radioactivity)
“ ......Soddy recalled how he stood stunned at the thought and let slip, ’this is transmutation’. ‘For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation’ warned Rutherford. ‘They’ll have our heads cut as alchemists’. ”

That pretty much sealed it. I bought the book. The humour and intensity in it caught my attention. I sat on it first thing I was free.

‘Quantum’ potraits a journey of discoveries that reinvented physics starting late in the nineteenth century, ushering in a scientific revolution that dispelled long-standing notions about matter and sparked off a new age. And this was when physicists started resigning to the thought there was nothing worthwhile left to discover. The shock was yet to come. It starts with discovery of quantum, quanta in plural by Max Planck. It depicts how it led physics, especially theoretical physics in a quest to define reality. It was a wonder world, following a genius that was Newton. 'Newtonian' was a religion and it changed. Frankly, it sped light-years ahead.

Learning concepts about atomic structure, electrons etc during school and college is one part. Getting to know what was behind all these things, how big they actually were and their immense influence on future generations is an altogether exquisite experience.

What the author has done exceptionally well was to give space for the role of each scientist depending on relevance. It gets you up and close with their personalities, their achievements and transports you to that place and time. Their long-lasting and game-changing influence on coming scientists also is well depicted. It is something you savour bit by bit. You sometimes wonder at how people really were. We generally expect scientists to be boring people coming out with amazing results from laboratories that propel them from obscurity to fame. That they do overnight miracles. But it is pleasantly surprising to see how personal or emotional it is for them. It is their life.

The book maintains the intensity throughout. There was not a single paragraph I felt was boring or avoidable. All this is amazing given the fact that it is just an assortment of history interspersed with attractive description, not a piece of fiction. This is something everyone as a kid would have wanted or will want to read. There is no physics jargon to confuse and tire the reader. Even a layman can read it but if you know about what is discussed, which students generally do, it will be a fantastic experience.

It is also stunning that most of the instrumental discoveries and significant works were by the young men of that age. You just can’t imagine how much youth weighed in. Fuelled by fresh imagination. This was also another notion about scientists that was found untrue.

And these weren’t single-man achievements who found out the secret key. It progressed with essential contributions from bright minds at each and every step. No wonder Einstein once said that he was seeing beyond standing on the shoulders of the giants of science.

At its heart lies the debate about reality between Einstein and Bohr, the two giants of modern science who had unimaginable significance on it in their own contrasting ways. Bohr said that physics was a description of ‘what we see’ while Einstein stubbornly stressed upon the fact that physics was knowledge of ‘what is’. It is a celebration of Einstein, the greatest genius since Newton, and Niels Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics. Also astonishing is the fact that the person who propelled all this by discovering quantum, Max Planck, was a staunch believer in Classical Physics. Any further description will be foolish, lest you should form a premature opinion. Prejudice is something that will be thrown out of the window by reading this book.

I am tempted to put in excerpts from the book to fire your interest but my sane half suggests me that you would enjoy better on reading the book, I really don’t want to spoil it. Just that you know, I can put in just a few lines and you will go running for a read. For anyone who is actually into physics, it would be a gross deprivation if they did not know what was already in the book. Its almost a duty.

In taking us through those two cruelly painful World Wars, depicting the predicaments science faced and the effects it had on its development, the author has done a truly commendable job. It is an exhilarating experience.

The tint of humour and drama are inherently present. You would have known many books on physics but would have never come across such lucid historical description on what has been its golden age. At every page I gaped and wondered. Sometimes I would stop reading, still drinking in the whole essence of what I read. I generally don’t re-read a book while its still incomplete. I did it while reading this, several times. I still revisit parts of it. The final quotation is more than worth its place, summarizing brilliantly and succinctly the quest of Einstein. Accolades to the author for compiling this compelling narrative.

The book went as far as permanently changing my outlook in many fundamental aspects. Brilliant, entertaining, informative, insightful and thought-provoking are only a few words that come to my mind. Sit back and enjoy. It will be on the list of ten best things you did this year.

And as one review on the cover says, ‘A super collider of a book’.

PS:Check out the net for more reviews and info.

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