Quantum mechanics has a reputation for weirdness which often gives rise to misunderstandings.
Indeed, as we read in the book, "something strange is afoot", but this doesn't mean "that we are steeped in mystery" or that quantum theory describes a world in which the impossible becomes possible. Quantum mechanics has its own precise mathematical laws which provide the best explanation of the deepest aspects of matter.
Quantum mechanics "is one of the three great pillars supporting our understanding of the natural world", together with Einstein's Special and General Relativity: while the latter explain the nature of space and time and the force of gravity, the former explains everything else.
The difficulty in understanding what happens in the quantum world lies not in the complexity of the mathematical formalism: we can in fact understand Newton's laws without appreciating their mathematical formulation. The reason is rather to be found in the fact that quantum particles do not behave in the same way as the macroscopic objects with which we are familiar. Accordingly, our intuitive knowledge of the world and our basic scientific knowledge cannot help us in understanding quantum phenomena. Rather, it can be a hindrance because we may try to extend our naïve intuition onto the altogether different quantum realm.
The perplexity that we can feel in approaching these phenomena shouldn't discourage readers: even the first great scientists who laid the foundations of quantum mechanics found it difficult to understand and to find an explanation for these new phenomena.
Quantum mechanics was in fact born from the discovery of some phenomena that classical science couldn't explain: "a cascade of inexplicable results caused excitement and confusion, and catalyzed a period of experimental and theoretical innovation".
Cox and Forshaw aim to shed some light on this difficult topic, and succeed, showing the scientific principles behind the apparent oddities of quantum world.
In this respect, readers will be swept away by the authors' contagious enthusiasm. You can feel it not only in the description of the turning points of the history of quantum mechanics, but even in the more technical passages.
The formalism that the authors introduce in the first chapters is a little bit complex, but it is within the reach of a careful and patient reader. You don't need to follow the authors in the mathematical parts to appreciate the whole book: you can also follow only the theoretical steps that lead from atoms, to DNA, to stars.
The principles underpinning the quantum world, the authors explain, are "so simple that they can be summarized in the back of an envelope". Things become more complicated when we want to calculate the consequences of these basic laws. It is when we turn to these aspects that we can discover the apparent weirdness of quantum phenomena, starting from the behavior of the quantum particles that constitute everything that exists.
Readers may sometimes feel they are losing sight of their familiar world, but the book doesn't get lost in abstraction. The authors show in fact how quantum theory affects our everyday life: it explains, just to make some example, why we don't fall through the floor, how lasers and transistors work and how the electronic properties arise from the properties of quantum particles.
Following Cox and Forshaw throughout the book is a great pleasure: they use a simple and direct style allowing the readers to follow easily their explanations.
They successfully accomplish their aim "to demystify quantum theory" without depriving it of its appeal.
© 2012 Silvia Di Paolo
Silvia Di Paolo is a Ph.D. student from the University of Rome La Sapienza. Her main fields of interests are logic, philosophy of logic, and history of logic. In the past few years, she has been focusing on the work of Frege. She is now concerned with Brandom’s reading of Frege as an inferentialist.