It was with great enthusiasm that I began reading “Quantum Physics for Poets.” “Quantum Physics!” quoth I, “Written just for me!” For I am, if not literal writer of rhyming or metered prose, a purveyor of the arts, a “poet” in the proverbial sense. I was not many pages into this book, written by Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate, and Christopher Hill, a theoretical physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Lab, before I realized that this book is not at all for “poets,” proverbial or otherwise, and only now, as I gaze dispassionately at the “Advance Praise” on the jacket that’s completely written by other physicists and editors of Science News, do I wonder if any poets were even consulted. I consider other titles that would have been better suited, like “Quantum Physics for, If Not Actual Physicists, Then, People Who Majored in Math in College, and, Not Only That, But Remember a Lot of It, Too.”
Of course, the authors go to some length to explain that what’s needed in understanding or even talking about quantum physics is a new language and a release of intuition. Quanta do not work as expected, and approaching the topic requires some abstract thinking. Their enthusiasm for the subject is hard to ignore—they frequently remind the reader that if their world hasn’t totally turned upside down, they most likely haven’t understood it properly. That’s a bit harsh, considering just how difficult it is to wrap the mind around some of these concepts (even for Einstein). Chances are, even if only a small fraction is truly comprehended, it’s mind-blowing material.
Time and space, space-time, alternate universes—they’re such fun topics to sit back and dwell upon, with a glass of wine, preferably, or something stronger. The most interesting bits are perhaps the most accessible: Schrödinger and his poor pussy cat, the concept of awareness or monitoring actually affecting the outcome of experiments, this “spooky action at a distance” business. They try hard to “sex up” the material—when guiding a thought experiment about light and photons, readers are encouraged to imagine a reflection in a window—but not just any window, a window at Victoria’s Secret. If a famous physicist in history had a wife and a mistress, it does not go unnoticed.
The authors remind us that quantum physics deeply disturbs its experts, that Einstein and others spent sleepless nights worrying about its implications or, worse yet, that there’s some other type of physics even more crazy than this one that will blow our minds all over again. “For a person who approached physics with a deep and abiding philosophy of naturalness, as Einstein did, quantum reality is no less than an intellectual catastrophe. Physicists have brilliantly deciphered how quantum theory works, but they are only clerks taking dictation or workers on an assembly line when it comes to trying to understand why it is this way. That doesn’t inspire confidence, but this does: “Scientifically, quantum theory simply works, whether or not we philosophically understand it.”
At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned more about quantum physics from “poets” than physicists. Artists like Caroline Bergvall and Jose Gonzalez Torres, and writers like Jennifer Egan and Tom Stoppard are a good place to start. Wouldn’t it be great to read “Poems for Quantum Physicists?” “A book of poems,” they’d squeal. “Written just for me!” (Kelly Roark)
“Quantum Physics for Poets”
By Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill
Prometheus Books, 338 pages, $28