Books · Science

Book review: Introducing Quantum Theory

Last year I finally got round to reading two out of the three in this series that was given away with copies of The Guardian in, oh… 2010? The two were Introducing Philosophy and Introducing postmodernism. One was good, one was not. This year I finally read the third one: Introducing Quantum Theory. I don’t know why I never got around to reading this while I was doing my undergraduate degree or my PhD, or even my postdoc, maybe I just felt like I was already doing enough physics. Now I’m using my degrees to an even fuller extent than I did when I was literally paid to be an astrophysicist, I find myself wanting to read the more theoretical stuff again.

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Introducing Quantum Theory

 

This is a book that does exactly what it says on the cover – it’s an introduction. J.P. McEvoy recognises how hard Quantum Theory is, recognises that you cannot be taught it in 150 pages of cartoons, and so decides to not bother trying. Instead, it introduces the main ideas and, indeed, the main characters who had them. In this way it’s not simply an introduction to the science, but to the ideas and the history of Quantum Theory, and a good thing too. Because otherwise it would have featured a lot more equations and wouldn’t have had the space to explain them. Incidentally, if anyone is looking for that kind fo text, the should start with Dirac.

As it is, Introducing does a good job of laying the foundations without assuming too much knowledge until about 75% of the way in. Somewhere around here the assumption is made that the reader understands basic algebra. It’s at the level of really understanding how the equals sign works, or that “ab” means “a number represented by the letter a, multiplied by a number represented by the letter b,” which really isn’t that trivial, especially for anyone who didn’t do much more than the minimum amount of maths at highschool. Perhaps it’s simply assumed that such a person isn’t going to be interested in this kind of book, but I’m not sure I agree with that kind of an assumption.

Even so, the mathematics isn’t essential to understanding and even if you don’t get it, you can skip past it and still easily follow the broad strokes meaning behind it. In which case you get all the fun phenomena, including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, Wave-Particle Duality, Schrodinger’s cat, and even, yes, The Dirac equation (which I’m more than happy to admit that I still do not fully understand).

As introductions go, it’s pretty great, in that it gives you a taster and enough information to google the rest. It’d be a good text to pick up as a warm up before university, provided you were ready to flip to the bibliography and spend a few afternoons in the library afterwards. It’s also a handy primer for anyone who wants to know a bit but doesn’t plan to get a degree in the subject. You can’t say fairer than that.

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