Sunday, August 24, 2008

Book Review: Alice in Quantumland

Quantum physics is the swan song of fundamentalist materialism. Given that quantum physics started about a hundred years ago, fundamentalist materialism is a walking corpse and has been for some time. Just to be clear, by fundamentalist materialism I refer to the belief that the universe consists of a lot of particles that behave basically like little billiard balls, and electromagnetic energy, and gravity. That's all. Nothing else. Even life, according to this paradigm, is simply a result of particular combinations of the billiard balls.

The mortal weakness of this paradigm, however, is the central assumption that the billiard balls and associated forces behave deterministically. That is, if you were able to know the position and momentum at a certain point in time of each of the billiard balls, you can predict the position and momentum of any of them at any point in time in the future (given a sufficiently powerful computer). Quantum physics says quite flatly that this assumption is incorrect. For this reason we as recovering materialists should all devote some time to learning at least the basics of quantum physics.

Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics by Robert Gilmore is a good place to start. The format of the book is exactly what you would expect given the title. The content will be more surprising. Neils Bohr once said: "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." So if you don't know anything about quantum physics, prepare to be amazed.

In this book you'll find the standard double-slit experiment, the multiple-worlds theory, quarks, and Schrodinger's cat. The best part of the book in my opinion is the explanation of the measurement problem. The measurement problem is this: each subatomic particles could be in a variety of different states and positions before a measurement is made. The measurement instruments consist of more subatomic particles with the same properties, as does the brain of the person making the measurement. However, once a measurement is made, there is just one set of definite properties. So at what point does a collection of probabilities collapse into a single measurement?

The book doesn't cover the new string theory, but all of the basics of quantum physics are there. Pick up a copy if the subject interests you.

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