Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Quantum Labyrinth - a review

Because of real life constraints I'm a bit slow off the mark compared to others, but I've just finished reading The Quantum Labyrinth by Paul Halpern, and wanted to get some thoughts down about it.  The book is a bit of a superposition between a dual biography of Feynman and Wheeler, and a general history of the long-term impact of what started out as their absorber theory.  

The biographical aspects of Feynman have been well trod before by many, including Feynman himself and rather more objectively by James Gleick.   Feynman helped create his own legend (safecracking, being a mathematically prodigious, bongo-playing smart-ass).  The bits called back in the present work that resonate with me now (perhaps because of my age) are how lost he was after his first wife's death, his insecurity about whether he was really getting anything done after QED, his embracing of family life with his third wife, and his love of teaching - both as theater and as a way to feel accomplishment when research may be slow going.  

From other books I'd known a bit about Wheeler, who was still occasionally supervising physics senior theses at Princeton when I was an undergrad.  The backstory about his brother's death in WWII as motivation for Wheeler's continued defense work after the war was new to me.   Halpern does a very good job conveying Wheeler's style - coining pithy epigrams ("Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve.", "The boundary of a boundary is zero.") and jumping from topic to topic with way outside the box thinking.  We also see him editing his students' theses and papers to avoid antagonizing people.  Interesting.

From the Feynman side, the absorber theory morphed into path integrals, his eponymous diagrams, and his treatment of quantum electrodynamics.   The book does a good job discussing this, though like nearly every popularization, occasionally the analogies, similes, and metaphors end up sacrificing accuracy for the sake of trying to convey physical intuition.    From the Wheeler angle, we get to learn about attempts at quantizing gravity, geons, wormholes, and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

It's a fun read that gives you a sense of the personalities and the times for a big chunk of twentieth century theoretical physics, and I'm impressed with Halpern's ability to convey these things without being a professional historian.  

1 comment:

prof prem raj pushpakaran said...

prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Richard Phillips Feynman!!!