Quantum Leaps, By Jeremy Bernstein

Tom Wilkinson
Thursday 07 January 2010 01:00 GMT

More guff has been spouted by non-scientists on quantum mechanics than any other subject excepting... relativity, of course. Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist who has lived quantum theory for more than 60 years and in Quantum Leaps he writes about both the solid core of the subject and the wilder fringes. Accompanying some rigorous philosophical workouts are clubby musings on the lives and thoughts of great men, mostly physicists and mathematicians, but also W H Auden, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Dalai Lama.

The heart of the book concerns the work of the Irish physicist John Bell (1928-90), who is thought to have solved the problem that one particle can seem to "know" what has happened to another one thousands of miles away. But Bernstein's brief also takes in the broader ramifications of quantum mechanics as it has engaged with ideology (Marxist dialectical materialism, religion – mainly Buddhism – and New Age philosophy).

Bernstein is something of an accidental physicist, who at Harvard was enchanted by the quantum problem of double and single slits. He has followed his nose ever since, as a visiting professor at Princeton and a prolific science author. He explores the depiction of quantum physics in literature (both literally and metaphorically), including works by Tom Stoppard, Lawrence Durrell, Michel Houellebecq and, little known here, Rebecca Goldstein. He finds that writers such as Stoppard have been seduced by the paradoxes but have mostly missed the point, and he is especially scathing about New Agers Gary Zukav and Frtijof Capra. The Dalai Lama, whom Bernstein has met (he has met everybody), is treated more kindly.

Bernstein is an erudite polymath and, at 79, is not about to make concessions to the make-it-easy reader. His exposition of the quantum conundrums is clear and bracing, and a stimulating challenge. Quantum Leaps is an intellectual curiosity, redolent of the strange mental landscape inhabited by the world's greatest intellects.

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