Man contemplating quantum mechanics

Book review: ‘Six Impossible Things’ by John Gribbin

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In the world of quantum mechanics, just because something’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Quantum physics is strange. These are the first words of John Gribbin’s brilliant new book ‘Six Impossible Things’ (Icon Books, £9.99, ISBN 9781785784996), its title taken from the University of Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s philosophical fiction. Dodgson is, of course, better known as Lewis Carroll and the book to which Gribbin refers is ‘Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There’, in which the White Queen assures Alice that, in her youth, she was able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”.

Gribbin’s pocket-sized analysis of the six most important interpretations of quantum mechanics also has a literary subtitle – ‘The ‘Quanta of Solace’ and the Mysteries of the Subatomic World’ – ultimately derived from a short story by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007. That Gribbin should reach into the dual surreal worlds of fantasy and espionage is hardly surprising. After all, “quantum rules seem to be telling us that a cat can be alive and dead at the same time, while a particle can be in two places at once”.

Confused? Well, Gribbin’s approach to demystifying a landscape that has perplexed physicists – to the point where the best advice until recently has been ‘shut up and calculate’ – is to talk us through six of the current ‘one true faiths’ of what’s going on at the subatomic level. He chooses six (out of many more) because he likes the Alice quotation for the title of his book. Which isn’t as daft as it sounds, because quantum is world of crazy ideas, says Gribbin. But crazy does not mean wrong, while crazier doesn’t mean more wrong. Gribbin presents an agnostic view of these positions, keeping his own opinions close to his chest, “leaving you to make your own choice”.

We’ve known that the world of quantum physics is strange for a century. But the distressing thing about this state of affairs is that we still don’t really know what’s going on. In fact, we’re not much further down the track than we were in 1929, when Arthur Eddington informed the world that “something unknown is doing we don’t know what”. Eddington, like Gribbin 90 years later, could only turn to Lewis Carroll – this time the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ – to tell us that it made as much sense as, “The slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”. Gribbin, to his credit, thinks that this is as good a way as putting it as any.

But he presses on, devoting a chapter to each of his Big Six ‘solaces’: ‘The Not So Wonderful Copenhagen Interpretation’, ‘The Not So Impossible Pilot Wave Interpretation’, ‘The Excess Baggage Many Worlds Interpretation’, ‘The Incoherent Decoherence Interpretation’, ‘The Ensemble Non-Interpretation’ and ‘The Timeless Transactional Interpretation’, all of which sound like episode titles from TV sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Should you get to the end of ‘Six Impossible Things’, you probably won’t find yourself much better placed to make informed comment on the subject. But sometimes it’s good to know that we just don’t know.

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