November 19, 2008

Jones, Sheilla. The quantum ten: A story of passion, tragedy, ambition and science. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2008. 323pp.

Enough with the physics books, already! After a summer of more or less nothing but physics books, I should have probably tried something a bit different. On the other hand, this book is about one of the most interesting periods in all the history of physics -- that transitional time in the first third of the 20th century when some of the greatest minds of all time worked out the foundations of quantum physics. Back when I read Isaacson's Einstein book, that was one of the periods that fascinated me the most, especially because it was so instructive to see a brilliant mind like Einstein be so doggedly wrong. In a way, it gives hope to us all.

But, back to the book at hand.

Canadian journalist Sheilla Jones is basically telling the story of the rise of quantum theory through the stories of ten men: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrodinger, Louis de Broglie, Pascual Jordan and Paul Ehrenfest. It is through their interactions up until the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 that the story is told.

Jones does an admirable job of telling those 10 interrelated stories in a clear and comprehensible way. Some are highlighted more, such as Einstein, Bohr or Born and some less, such as Jordan or Dirac. However, if one person can said to be the main lens through which Jones tells the story, it is the tragic, troubled Paul Ehrenfest, the confidant of Einstein who ultimately committed suicide while also taking the life of his disabled son. His doubts and insecurities concerning his own abilities as a physicist are a perfect mirror in many ways for the perceived doubts and insecurities of the new quantum reality that those men had to come to grips with.

Jones does a fine job of telling a scientific story through biographical details, weaving in the darkening tale of pre-Nazi-era Europe in the tale as well. If I have any complaint, it's that the actually recounting of the Solvay Conference was a bit of an anti-climax. This is easily one of the best science books of the year and I would certainly expect it to make many of the year's best lists, especially in Canada.

I would easily recommend this book to any academic library that collects in popular science or the history of science. It would also be suitable for any public library. With the holiday season upon us, there would be worse gift ideas for the historically or scientifically minded.

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