The Soul of Science

As a lay person trying to get to grips with any meaningful sense in the world of quantum physics, specifically because of its apparent relevance to cosmic creation and the development of the “life, the universe and everything” – I took a recommendation from Marsha (over on MoQ-Discuss) for David Lindley’s “Uncertainty – Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the Struggle for the Soul of Science”. Glad I did.

A lot has been written about “Copenhagen” one way or another, so there are few new “facts” in a book like this, and it is therefore particularly satisfying to find it written simply, wittily and with just sufficient scepticism for the expressed thoughts and motives of the main players. (As well as Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr, those players inlcuded Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton, Kepler, Maxwell, the Curies, Becquerel, Bolzmann, Eddington, Brown, Darwin, Gouy, Laplace, Clausius, Poincare, Rutherford, JJ Thomson, Sommerfeld, Millikan, Planck, Pauli, Born, DeBroglie, Schroedinger and Dirac, to name a few, without even naming the philosophers and writers involved.)

In fact the only hint of being unsatisfactory is in the real-life plot itself. Of all the players, Heisenberg – and the armies of quantum mechanics that followed him – seem to be the only ones not to care about the philosophical and metaphysical implications of “uncertainty” – for want of any better label. Bohr and Einstein clearly both cared deeply, even if they could not agree on a satisfactory interpretation.

I say “for want of a better label” because Bohr himself is at least partly responsible for raising public consciousness of the underlying issues in their metaphorical relevance to so many other areas of science and rational studies in this post-modern era. In becoming cemented in wider consciousness, any hope of delineating between Correspondence, Complementarity and Uncertainty is probably lost, as is any distinction between the metaphorical application and any real physical sense of these terms. Thought experiments – of the kind Einstein favoured – clearly helped thinking and argument, but leave stubborn memes in the public mind; “Schroedinger’s Cat” (formerly “Einstein’s Bomb”) being simply the most infamous.

“Bohr was willing to write and speak about the larger meaning of probability and uncertainty, and to speculate on how these might come to influence other sciences. (When Einstein wrote and spoke on these broad topics, it was of course with the hope of reigning in their pernicious influence, not enlarging it.)”

Other writings come close to satisfying lay accounts of these issues – favourites of mine are (one third of) David Deutsch’s “Fabric of Reality”, Shimon Malin’s “Nature Loves to Hide” and John Gribbin’s “Schroedinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality” and “The Cartoon History of Time”- the latter, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, being my all time favourite. David Lindley however, by laying out the narrative drama, leaves us with that real sense that we are in a stalemate, a limbo, since the failure to achieve any real agreement.

“Between determinism and spontaneity.”

“A no-man’s-land between logic and physics.”

Must look out for other writing by Lindley.

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