Showing posts with label physics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label physics. Show all posts

Monday, November 6, 2017

Real Quanta by Martijn van Calmthout

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book was a disappointment to me, a dark body with little radiation. The first problem, I felt, was that the blurb completely misrepresents it. You can't blame the author for the blurb, unless the author self-publishes, but it's not the blurb that bothered me so much. Blurbs often misrepresent content. It's rather their job. What truly bothered me was the content itself, which was all over the place. There was a great teaching opportunity here, a chance to focus light on some potentially obscure subjects, but instead of a neat rainbow from a prism we got a scattering effect that failed to focus anything. The author is actually a science journalist, so this was doubly disappointing for me.

The conceit here is that the author, a Nederlander, is sitting down at a table in a fancy hotel in Brussels and discussing quantum physics with the German, Albert Einstein and the Dane, Neils Bohr, both of whom are dead. The problem with that is that neither Einstein nor Bohrs manage to get a word in edgewise; it's all Calmthout all the way down. And what he has to say was about as gripping an atom of a conducting material is on its electron shell.

According to the blurb, the book is supposed to be a discussion of "the state of quantum mechanics today" but it's far more of a history book than ever it is a modern electronics book, and the history, as I said, is terse and it bounces around so much that it makes it hard to get a clear picture of what was going on when. Unlike electrons which, when they jump, emit light, the text here typically failed to illuminate, hence my dark body allusion.

Additionally, there is a lot of repetition in the text, which is annoying. If this had been a first draft, I could have understood how it might end up like this, but this is supposed to be the publishable copy, or very close to it. In my opinion it needs a rewrite. And it needs properly formatting. This was obviously written with the print world in mind, without a single thought spared for the ebook version which is ironic given the subject matter! In my opinion, it should have been published only as an ebook.

The formatting was atrocious, with the titles of each chapter running into one word with no spacing, so they were unintelligible without some work to disentangle them. The drop-cap at the start of each chapter was predictably normal-sized because Amazon's crappy Kindle app cannot format for squat. Normal-sized, would have been fine had the drop-cap not been on the line above the rest of the text it was supposed to lead off. Also, quite often, when a term employing the indefinite article was employed, the 'a' was tacked onto the next word after it, which I suppose in one small way was an eloquent representation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

But back to the topic: the only way to have a conversation with Einstein or Bohrs is to read something they've written, or in the case of a book set up like this, to tread carefully and quote from them, using their published views as 'answers' to or explanations satisfying, your questions. The author didn't do this. Like I said, he seemed to feel that his own opinion was much more important than that of either of these two legendary and Nobel prize-winning historical figures!

He even puts words into my mouth so I shudder to imagine what he would have done to those two characters had he actually let them speak. For example, he says, "You instinctively wonder how on Earth an electron knows what is up and what is down. Aren’t those concepts a bit too human for a particle that shouldn’t really even be called a particle? That confusion is the core of the quantum mystery," but this is nonsensical, and do rest assured that I have never wondered how an electron knows what is up or down!

I can reveal to you here and now for the first time, that in the real world, electrons honestly don't give a damn. They are what they are. The fact that we project simplifying human 'explanations' onto them in an effort to understand their behavior doesn't mean the electrons care what we think! It's immaterial to an electron which way up it is. I know this because I interviewed a few for this blog and the truth is that electrons do not act alone! They're consummate team players - an example to us all!

The author doesn't seem to get this, and lets himself be dazzled by the reflection of our projections onto electrons, mistaking them for something real emanating from the electron itself! This same flaw is evident in the author's approach to the history of quantum physics: singling out great figures, but never successfully turning them into a refined-prose condensate. I wish this author all the best, but I fear we must await another author to get us a Grand Unified Theory of modern quantum mechanics - at least one that will energize the masses and give us the chain reaction we crave.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios

Rating: WARTY!

Dishonestly subtitled " A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World", this book was a disappointment. There is math in this - a lot of it - and it starts right there in chapter one. It isn't at all well explained. That was the biggest problem here. This author simply is not one who can competently and clearly explain complex science to the lay person.

I didn't come into this completely ignorant, but I left it with little learned, which is why this is a fail. I have read quite a lot on Quantum Mechanics, which doesn't make me an expert by any means, but I do understand some of the principles and ideas. This author but this guy did nothing to enlighten me any further. His constant footnotes were far more annoying than ever they were edifying, and his frequent references to obscure antique comic books did nothing to help his case along.

For me, Lawrence M. Krauss started all this in 1995, when he published The Physics of Star Trek which was well-written, entertaining, and educational. It spawned many imitators, few of which have been as well done as his was. I think Kakalios believed he could turn his own obsession with old comics into a similar work, but whereas Krauss actually did reference a cultural icon which is well-known, Kakalios simply appears to have indulged himself in his own personal passion, which has little, if any, relevance to anyone else.

This book was dense, humorless, and unenlightened, the illustrations unillustrative, the explanations obscure and meandering when they were not outright obfuscating, and the frequent comic book and fifties 'B' movie references irritating and distracting. I can't recommend this at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Title: A Universe From Nothing
Author: Lawrence Krauss
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

It's December 21st, so it's time for double U - not to be confused with W!

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing has been a very controversial book and for no good reason. If you search for reviews on it, what pops up in abundance is Christian websites desperately trying not to refute it (they can’t) but to discredit it! That's a good sign, because it means that it seriously shredded yet another facet of their inane fairy tale, and like a wounded wild animal, they’re lashing out blindly in their pain. This is a routine knee-jerk reaction which we see every time a new Richard Dawkins book comes out, for example.

Note in passing, one more thing about this book. When real professionals, doctors, scientists, and so on, publish a book, they never put their credentials after their name. It's always - and only 'Lawrence Krauss', or 'Lynn Margulis', or 'Neil deGrasse Tyson', or 'Richard Dawkins', or 'Carl Sagan', or 'Stephen Gould', or 'Brian Greene', and so on. This is how you differentiate books like this, ones which contain honest, factual information and tested scientific theory, from those bullshit books which which contain so-called magic diets or alternate lifestyle "help", where the authors invariably lard up their name with a string of letters trailing it. Keep that in mind for future purchases!

The really amusing thing is that reviewers - on both sides of the fence, religious and scientific - are not so much reviewing what Krauss wrote per se as they are whinging about whether the powerful arguments science makes - which discredit or side-line religion - really dispatch it or not. I found that as interesting as it was revealing, because these same people don’t ever try to argue in that same way when a religious book is published using science to try to establish their particular god!

I noticed that one Christian website, in a negative review of this book, was still flogging the bankrupt and discredited (non-)argument employed by William Lane Craig, but not original with him:

    Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. The universe exists. Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This particular website concluded: "Since this is a logically valid deductive argument, and since the universe obviously exists, non-theists must deny premises 1 or 4 to rationally avoid God’s existence." This is patent nonsense of course! It’s not even rational. Point one is far from established. It’s simply wet sand upon which the theists choose to base their claims, and it completely ignores quantum physics and vacuum energy which fly in the face of it. Point four is nothing but a baseless and desperate assertion, which proves nothing other than that they who support this argument are not above hypocritically bearing false witness.

Point three in no way rationally follows from anything which preceded it not least of which because point one has not been established. This is the transparent theist attempt to get a free lunch, because all of the 'arguments' they make carry within them the implicit and a priori assumption existence of a god. They claim that their god has always existed, yet if you tell them that the universe (or whatever generated it) has always existed, they argue that it cannot be so - it needed a cause; then they argue that their god is causeless! Rational? Not even close.

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Krauss, but I think he did a better job in the popular books which first brought him to wide-spread recognition than he does here. His The Physics of Star Trek And Beyond Star Trek are amazing and very accessible, and I highly recommend them. The second was, I think, better than the first. Here in this book, he's not looking at how realistic (or otherwise) science fiction is, he's actually looking at the meaning of science which is so advanced that it might appear like science fiction (or even fantasy) to people who either don’t take the trouble to understand it, or who are arbitrarily predisposed (from the thorough religious indoctrination most people are subject to from childhood) to dismiss it out of hand.

But while I think he could have done a lot better job in conveying his ideas (and perhaps an even better job in reading them - I listened to the audio book version, which Krauss reads himself, and not always very clearly), I still think he made his case. The question is what case was it he was making? People assume he was simply making a claim that everything came from nothing and he proved it in this book, but that's not actually what he's saying.

In his own words, in an interview, Krauss put it this way: "...I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore." That's an excellent interview and I recommend reading it. It clarifies a lot of things and makes obsolete a lot of the arguments people have tried to raise in the wake of this book. The link was good at the time this review was first posted.

Krauss came from a background of particle physics and moved into astrophysics afterwards, so he's in a very good position professionally, to write a book like this. He begins by bringing his readers up to speed on the modern theory of how the universe began. And note that here, theory is used in a scientific sense - as an understanding of physical laws and an explanation for how they interact with the real world. It's not being used in the popular sense, like one kid might say to another, I have a theory that your dad isn’t going to be thrilled with us for arriving home so late. A scientific theory is something which has been put together based on observations of reality. It seeks to clarify why things are the way they are, and more than this, it offers predictions which can be tested, and which will either disprove the theory or which will help to further confirm it.

This is why I don’t get why some scientists have taken issue with this book because it asks a "Why?" question! Science is all about why, so why can't Krauss ask why there is something instead of nothing?! Both they and the theists are also missing the point that even if Krauss has not explained everything (and I don’t see where he ever claimed that he had), the fact remains that he has explained everything that he did explain without having to ever call upon any gods. That's the bottom line here. Religion has always had its forte in the gaps in our knowledge. Had we the scientific understanding of the world we now have, but had it ten thousand years ago, no religion could ever have begun.

Some have criticized Krauss for what they describe as 'padding' this book with a discussion of scientific discoveries about the universe, and how we know how big it is, and of what it's composed, but this is necessary since he's talking about its origin. It’s important to understand that origin and how it was discovered, because topics that he discusses here are called into use later - or at least show the need for a certain amount of familiarity with what came before to understand properly what's discussed later.

It’s not a question of the individual value of the different parts, it’s a matter of the utility of the whole. To take a part of his book and criticize that while ignoring the whole package is nonsensical! It’s like checking that your kid packed everything before you go on vacation, focusing on one corner of the suitcase and saying, "There's nothing but socks all the way down! How can you go out in public with only socks?" Well duhh!

My only complaint is about the clarity, as I've mentioned. I think Krauss could have done a better job of explaining in some portions of the book, and he certainly could have done a better job of reading those parts! Perhaps the audio book isn’t the best way to absorb this book, not least because it skips all of the illustrations and diagrams. That said I recommend the book because I think it does exactly what the title promises for theistic definitions of nothing.

Of course, the theists are going to continue to move the goalposts; that's a given. It's true that science is not about proof, it’s about going where the evidence leads and understanding what it means, but if the history of science has proved anything, it’s that as long as theists keep on proudly erecting those goalposts, then scientists are going to continue to score right through them.

If you can't get the book, but you do have Internet access, then you can watch a recording of Krauss giving a lecture which is the essence or even the prototype of this book. It's in this video that we can enjoy gems like: "Forget Jesus, the stars died so that you could be here today!" and "Empty space is responsible for 90% of your mass." I recommend this book.