Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Mechanics is ... Different
Ball (Philip)
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Amazon Book Description

  1. Physics World 2018 Book of The Year
  2. ‘A clear and deeply researched account of what’s known about the quantum laws of nature, and how to think about what they might really mean’
    → Nature
  3. ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics1.’ Richard Feynman wrote this in 1965 – the year he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his work on quantum mechanics2. Over the past decade, the enigma of quantum mechanics3 has come into sharper focus. We now realise that quantum mechanics4 is less about particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness, than a theory about information: about what can be known and how.
  4. The quantum world isn’t a different world: it is our world, and if anything deserves to be called ‘weird’, it’s us. This exhilarating book is about what quantum maths really means – and what it doesn’t mean.
  5. ‘Gorgeously lucid…takes us to the edge of contemporary theorizing about the foundations of quantum mechanics…5 Easily the best book I’ve read on the subject’
    → Washington Post

Amazon Customer Review
  1. "Beyond Weird", despite its cheesy title, makes a good impression from the very start. Ball is an engaging writer who knows his stuff and doesn't patronise the reader. It's like he's talking to a curious colleague who uses quantum theory6 (a chemist or applied physicist, for example) but doesn't research it. The tone would work well for a recent physics graduate or someone in the final stages of their QM course.
  2. The problem with quantum mechanics7 is that the mathematics makes plenty of sense in itself (Schrödinger's equation and its many solutions in concrete circumstances such as the structure and behaviour of the hydrogen atom, for example) but the many constructs of the theoretical apparatus don't align with any compelling concept of 'reality'. To properly engage with the 'interpretation problem' you have to understand the maths, which means taking a course first.
  3. Before I studied quantum mechanics8 (with the Open University - SM358) I thought I had a grasp - as an educated person with a technical background - of quantum theory9, at least at a conceptual level. I knew, or thought I knew, about the uncertainty principle, the wave function and its collapse, the double slit experiment and its paradoxical interpretation and so on.
  4. I spent the first third of my QM course learning a lot of details about Schrödinger's equation in its time dependent and stationary forms, about spin spaces, kets, operators, expansions in terms of eigenfunctions, Hilbert spaces and so on. I was internalising this complex apparatus and making it work and I couldn't anchor any of it into the real world. I was confused, baffled, a sufferer from extreme cognitive dissonance. It was not pleasant.
  5. Eventually I managed to organise all this stuff into something which kind of made internal sense, and kept reminding myself that in the end its only function was to produce a number between zero and one as regards observable outcomes. I had become acculturated, but I still didn't know what any of it really told me about reality.
  6. And I think that only after this 'preparation' is a reader really able to engage profitably with Philip Ball's book.
  7. Ball is good on superpositions and what it would mean if they were observable. He's as good as you could expect on decoherence and einselection, although it would have been useful to have a more explanatory appendix (perhaps that's more a signifier for my own lack of clarity). He is also good at debunking some of the more ontological-realist views of the wavefunction. There are also clear accounts of Bell's theorem and quantum computing.
  8. And then it starts to unravel. Ball clearly has a thing about the many-worlds interpretation (which has a stronghold at his alma mater, Oxford). His customary cool deserts him for visceral distaste. His debunking is anticlimactic, however, depending on philosophical sophistry about identity-continuity before and after 'splitting' of worlds. The MWI does not hang on such arguments.
  9. In the final chapters things get worse. Ball's enthusiasm for 'it from bit', an information-centric approach to the interpretation problem, gets the better of him. Unfortunately the ideas swirling around in this currently active area of investigation are even more formless and confusing than the more conventional ideas he's been debunking all along. We finish the book shaking our heads and asking, 'What was that about?'.
  10. If you read one book on the interpretation of quantum mechanics10, and you have studied QM as an undergraduate, this may well be the book for you. It will confirm that you were right to be concerned that the Copenhagen stuff you were taught does not put an end to the discussion, and it will straighten out and firm up many of your questions and half-formed, tentative conclusions.
  11. Just don't think it will give you any final answers: there are none.

  1. No-one can say what quantum mechanics11 means (and this is a book about it) – 6
  2. Quantum mechanics12 is not really about the quantum – 24
  3. Quantum objects are neither wave nor particle (but sometimes they might as well be) – 38
  4. Quantum particles aren’t in two states at once (but sometimes they might as well be) – 60
  5. What ‘happens’ depends on what we find out about it – 78
  6. There are many ways of interpreting quantum theory13 (and none of them quite makes sense) – 104
  7. Whatever the question, the answer is ‘Yes’ (unless it’s ‘No’) – 128
  8. Not everything is knowable at once – 146
  9. The properties of quantum objects don’t have to be contained within the objects – 160
  10. There is no ‘spooky action at a distance’ – 180
  11. The everyday world is what quantum becomes at human scales – 198
  12. Everything you experience is a (partial) copy of what causes it – 220
  13. Schrodinger’s cat has had kittens – 240
  14. Quantum mechanics14 can be harnessed for technology – 254
  15. Quantum computers don’t necessarily perform ‘many calculations at once’ – 278
  16. There is no other ‘quantum’ you – 288
  17. Things could be even more ‘quantum’ than they are (so why aren’t they)? 308
  18. The fundamental laws of quantum mechanics15 might be simpler than we imagine – 322
  19. Can we ever get to the bottom of it? 340
  20. → Acknowledgements – 355
    → Notes – 357
    → Bibliography – 361
    → Index – 373


Vintage; 2nd (31 Jan. 2019)

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