Books : reviews

David Lindley.
Where Does the Weirdness Go?: why quantum mechanics is strange, but not as strange as you think.
Vintage. 1996

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 9 July 2003

This is a great account of that most weird of all subjects: quantum mechanics. Lindley eschews the increasingly popular approach of arranging his material historically and biographically. Rather, he orders his material in a way more appropriate to explaining the subject matter, focussing on describing the essential physics in a logical manner, and leaving the people involved where they belong: on the periphery. This focus in no way makes the book dry or inaccessible. Lindley has a light touch, describing his material clearly and amusingly. His prose style is delightfully transparent throughout. However, there is one place where he uses a deliberately obscure style to make his point; I laughed out loud when I got to the end of

Whereas Niels Bohr enveloped the mysteries of quantum mechanics in a web of words as enigmatic and ambiguous as the subject he sought to explain, smothering his readers in a blanket of reassurance that warded off misunderstanding by the indirect expedient of creating a beguiling darkness that set in precisely at the point where one should want more light, and leading more than a few students of physics to conclude---not without, one may suppose, a dim sense of betrayal, for how could a loyal apprentice admit the master's thick blandishments to conceal not great wisdom but the implicit acknowledgment of failure?---that his pronouncements had begun to resemble what Thomas Hardy said was the prose of Henry James, that is, a ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences, Bell pursued clarity above all.

The majority of the book is taken up with a careful description of quantum measurements, and what the implications are. Entanglement emerges "for free" from this treatment -- it's just the way the quantum universe is. Then towards the end we get an equally careful description of decoherence: why the macroscopic world doesn't exhibit quantum weirdness (except in very carefully arranged circumstances), and why Schrodinger's cat isn't a problem.

Lindley clearly describes the science and the philosophy: what it does, and what it means. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the implications of living in a quantum world.