I finished reading two very different books about two theories in physics, The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn
by Louisa Gilder and “Gina Says,” Adventures in the Blogsphere String War
"selected and edited" by Gil Kalai. While vastly different in style they both feature scientists happy to talk and defend about their own points of view in controversy theories but rarely willing to reconsider those views.
Louisa Gilder's book takes a detailed look at the early years of quantum theory using an interesting technique: Creating imagined conversations between the leading scientists of the time based on their writings. These conversations make the development of the theory an exciting story when greats like Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg struggle over the right ways to handle the seemingly paradoxical nature of quantum effects. As Bohr gets quoted in the book during a Copenhagen trolley ride with Einstein and Sommerfeld, "I suppose that during a stage in science where everything is in ferment, it cannot be expected that everybody has the same view about everything".
Gilder's book gives a detailed year by year development through the 1935 Einstein-Poldolsky-Rosen paper but then moves much quicker through David Bohm's theories from his exile in Brazil (due to McCarthyism), the Bell inequalities and related experiments, and the development of quantum cryptography and computing. The computer science aspects are particularily short with only a brief mention of "the reclusive Peter Shor and the witty Luv Grover". She doesn't ignore the political backdrops of the times but thankfully she doesn't overly emphasize it either.
You won't learn more than the broad strokes of quantum physics with this book but you get to relive the development of a discipline as brilliant minds argue the right way to model a new phenomenon.
Gil Kalai's book is a quick read from the viewpoint of "Gina" a non-expert who comments on the blogs of mostly string theory skeptics. It certainly was a fun read but I finished not sure of the purpose of the book. Seemed to focus more on the role of bloggers and commentors than the philosophical questions of developing a complicated theory that seemingly can't be tested. Where's Occam's Razor when you need it? Kalai had some interesting digressions to areas like Godel's incompleteness theorem and Bayesian learning but those just added to the disjointness of the book. Kalai's book does have the big advantage of being a free download.
So I'd recommend Gilder's book if you want a detailed almost novel-like development of a field and Kalai's book if you want a quick fun free read on how some skeptics defend their skepticism.
Both books remind us that theoretical research must go beyond just doing the math, in finding the simplest models that best capture the concepts we study. Lessons that hold as much in computer science as they do in physics.
Posted By Lance to Computational Complexity
at 6/26/2009 06:28:00 AM