Review: 'In Search of Schrodinger's Cat' by John Gribben

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It's not exactly a secret that quantum physics is complicated.

It's the most pioneering form of science, pulling us into a strange world of infinitesimally small particles and realities that are so out of odds with our own usual perceptions that even Einstein himself struggled with the implications. Most famously, it is a realm where, in the thought experiment of 'Schrodinger's Cat', a creature in a sealed system can be considered to be simultaneously alive and dead until we, the observers, actually open up the box and take a peek. 

I'm no scientist. I did well in my GCSEs for chemistry,physics and biology, but I'm pretty convinced that this is testament for an odd talent in studying for exams and writing essays instead of any actual ability in scientific thinking. Besides, explaining even the basics of quantum theory here is rather beyond the scope of this humble little blog. So the real question is: does In Search of Schrodinger's Cat do a good job of explaining what quantum theory is to a layman?

In short: absolutely. I picked up In Search of Schrodinger's Cat on a whim when I spotted it in Oxfam, expecting that I would be hideously confused within mere pages and bored even sooner than that. Instead it hooked me and pulled me across the following pages and chapters with all the insatiable drive of a good novel. The book is crafted so that it takes the route of a history of quantum mechanics itself, starting with how we began to build up a picture of what the atom was. By starting at the beginning and walking historically through each question,debate and discovery as it happens, the book manages to keep things at layman's terms and gradually builds up the complexity of the science involved in layers, each firmly rooted in the context of what created each idea. If you eventually find yourself confused at the complexity of the mathematical equations or experiments that Gribbin recounts he soon pulls you back into the comprehensible with his talented use of practical similes and his own genuine excitement for the subject. (For example, he likens the different energy states in different atoms to different types of crowd behaviour in rock concerts). For me, this allowed me to see the steady buildup of complexity and to marvel at the creative intelligence of the talented scientists involved, while still feeling like I had a working knowledge of what quantum theory means and how it is used, even if the more delicate nuts and bolts of theoretical physics escaped me.

And marvel I did. Quantum theory gets a bad rep due in large to it being widely represented in popular culture but not easily understood - it looks as if it's scientists fudging the maths because it looks like bloody magic. If we take the Schrodinger's cat example, how can something be both alive and dead? Why should human observation fundamentally change the universe? How can one particle millions of miles away 'know' when another one changes? What the heck is going on?
What Gribbin does with great talent is to explain all of these questions while not dismissing why people find this area so challenging. By taking you through quantum theory from the very beginning step by step, and by giving time to explore many of the arguments against many quantum theory explanations too, you are finally prepared to open your mind to the stranger aspects of that science with an informed background.When you finally perceive the true strangeness of reality as it really is, it's quite the eye opener.

It is worth noting that In Search of Schrodinger's Cat has it's limitations, namely due to it's age. The version I picked up had done the rounds: it was a 1998 version of the original 1984 print (and had seemingly done a repeated stint in the University of Queensland bookshop before finding its way to our English Oxfam). As a result, you have to acknowledge that in the last 18-32 years the field of quantum theory has moved far enough as to make some aspects of the science out of date. However the way that Gribbins hangs his book on a historical timeline, it still has great value. Nothing is missing and nothing is anachronistic, it's just that his timeline finishes with a lot of exciting questions in the 1980s, waiting for more answers. It would take a hard-hearted person not to be inspired by the closing pages.

In conclusion, In Search of Schrodinger'd Cat is an excellent book, and a must for anyone who is curious about science and would like an introduction into the weird world of quantum physics. What's more, it's even still in print with an updated version. Check it out ;)

Bonus fact:

One of the key modern figures of Quantum physics was a guy called 'Bryce DeWitt' who purported the 'many worlds' theory in direct challenge to the copenhagen theory of single-universe wave-function collapse. Is this where Booker DeWitt -the alternate reality jumping protagonist of Bioshock Infinite - got his name?

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