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Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics in popular-science books

11 Apr 2012

Since its inception in the early part of the 20th century, the theory of quantum mechanics has consistently baffled many of the great physicists of our time. But while the ideas of quantum physics are challenging and notoriously weird, they seem to capture the public imagination and hold an enduring appeal. Evidence of this comes in part from the numerous popular-science books that have been written on the topic over the years. This episode in the Physics World books podcast series looks at the popularity of quantum mechanics in science writing

As usual, the podcast is hosted by James Dacey, who is joined by Physics World‘s editor Matin Durrani and the magazine’s reviews editor Margaret Harris. The first part of the podcast addresses the question of why so many authors decide to write these books. The Physics World hosts are joined by physicist Chad Orzel, author of the bestselling book How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, which was released in 2010.

The middle section of the podcast looks in more detail at the process of writing these books. It features the established popular-science writer Marcus Chown, who describes his experience of writing the book Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, which was published in 2007. Chown admits that he found the Pauli exclusion principle to be the most challenging aspect of quantum mechanics to explain in everyday language. This leads on to an interesting debate about the pros and potential pitfalls of using metaphors to describe complex science and mathematics.

If scientists and science writers go through such pain to describe these features of the quantum world, then surely somebody without a scientific background should run a mile. But they don’t, instead they keep buying these books. In the final section of the podcast, the historian and philosopher Robert P Crease shares his thoughts on why the counterintuitive nature of quantum physics holds such a fascinating appeal for readers.

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