Classical physics, for the most, was concerned with (and reasonably good at explaining) medium-scale phenomena: and still now, as when they were discovered, Newton’s laws allow us to quite accurately predict behaviour of roughly human-scale objects. Newton’s laws and classical physics in general, fail when dealing with extremes of the largest and the smallest, the fastest and the slowest. Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, subtitled A Guide to the Universe actually presents two revolutionary theories of modern physics: Quantum Mechanics which deals with the tiniest, atomic and sub-atomic scales and Einstein’s general relativity which deals with the largest, cosmological scale.
Following Einstein’s principle that all genuinely important scientific ideas should be explainable to a layperson without recourse to obscure mathematics, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You contains very little in the way of equations or formulas, and, perhaps more controversially, no diagrams, charts or other illustrations.
At around hundred and fifty pages of the main text, roughly half devoted to each of the theories, Chown makes a genuine attempt at making the theories that allow us to understand those non-human-scale realms accessible to all, including people with very little or no science background. Fundamentally, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You succeeds in this attempt. I can imagine many readers who were left still baffled by other (popular and semi-popular) accounts who would be able to get closer to at least basic understanding after reading Chown’s book.
The language is brisk and colloquial, but the number of quips and witticisms is just about bearable. Chown uses numerous, fairly unusual analogies and metaphors to try and bring the sub-atomic world within the grasp of the reader. These frequent animisations and antropomorphisations of matter, including subatomic particles, often feel like a tiresome metaphor taken too far: one starts to get confused as to exactly what phenomenon is being explained and described.
I also thought that the simplifications in the presentation of quantum theory, although obviously unavoidable in such a popular account, were occasionally too severe, with particularly the philosophical implications oversimplified (and the Copenhagen interpretation taken virtually for granted).
On the contrary, the analogies and metaphors used in the second part to help the reader grasp the paradoxes and counter-intuitive nature of relativity are for the most excellent. Minkowski’s stick and its shadow were well worth presenting, and the consequences of the speed of light being equal for all observers were presented in a beautifully succinct and clear way.
Generally, the second part of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You was handled better than the first. I felt that Chown had both more confidence and – possibly – deeper understanding of the relativistic issues to do with cosmology. But it’s also possible that Einstein’s theory is, despite its all weirdness, still more graspable for a layperson than quantum mechanics.
As Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You proceeds from special to general relativity, Chown’s ability to illuminate and explain the revolutionary core of Einstein’s theories seems to develop further. Having skipped the insufferably contrived chapter intros, the step-by-step explanations lead the reader gently but surely to E=mc, black holes, antimatter and the curvature of space-time. The argument has a logical progression and ends up – in a rather elegant circle – with a presentation of the need for a quantum theory of gravity.
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You indeed won’t hurt you, and it might provide some enlightenment, very much needed with those two now iconic, but often not understood theories. If you know nothing about it and feel you won’t be able to even start to understand the science, read Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You: you might be pleasantly surprised. As an entry-level introduction to two greatest theories of modern physics, Marcus Chown’s presentation is accessible, readable and concise, and, although occasionally too simplistic, still largely successful, perhaps more so in the sections dealing with relativity than with quantum theory of the title.
Publisher: Faber and Faber September 2008
This review has been originally written for The Book Bag.