This review was originally posted at Goodreads and imported here later with next to no spell/grammar checking.
I picked this book up thinking it would be an accessible overview of the state of the art of quantum physics peppered up with the history of this extremely successful century-old theory and some anecdotes about the people involved.
Technically, What is Real is just that. But it’s so much more in ways I did not anticipate.
It is a redemption of Albert Einstein who, the common lore (even among physicists) would have us know, has lost touch as he got older and never really accepted the strange reality of the quantum physics despite his early contributions to the field. That view is at best wildly distorted.
It is a story of Niels Bohr, who’s cult of personality gathered a mysticism and following that resulted in arguably the most embarrassing chapter in modern science. Their dogmatic views (summed up as the Copenhagen Interpretation) prevented physicists to probe deep into the foundations of quantum physics and our universe.
Anyone who tried to understand what was actually going on would face ridicule, risk losing their job (or not being able to find one after they graduated) and would not be able to get their papers published. Even a mere association with someone questioning the dogma was risky to one’s career.
Questioning the status quo, trying to look for alternative interpretations, coming up with experiments that can show us holes in the current understanding are at the core of science. And yet, this pushback against even the slightest rocking of the boat was going on for several decades.
Pushback that was perpetuated by extremely talented people. You’d have an easier time counting who didn’t get a Nobel Price in the book’s cast of characters. Indeed, it may be because of the unprecedented success in prediction and precision of the quantum theory that people were told to "shut up and calculate", killing any enquiries about the nature of the field and how it relates to our world.
It is also, tragically, a story of the second World War and its disruption in the scientific field. In the thirties, the American physics was seriously behind and the vast majority of the research was going on in Berlin, Vienna and Copenhagen. A lot of that by scientists who were either of Jewish origin or who had a Jewish spouse.
Hitler’s anti-semitism played a large role in the quantum physics research leaving central Europe and the first atomic bomb being developed in the USA.
Even though the book pushes hard against the Copenhagen interpretation and the behaviour surrounding the dogmatic positions at the time, I find it is fair to all the people involved. All of these people were brilliant scientists and that is not dismissed here.
It would for example be easy to paint Niels Bohr as the villain of the story, but in addition to his undeniable contributions to physics, he was helping Jewish scientists by finding them jobs, financial help and helping them leave their countries that were about to arrest them. Other than Hitler, there are no villains here, just multi-faceted people.
What is Real is a fascinating account of the physics in the last hundred years. It also made me really frustrated and often quite angry. You don’t need to really know any physics to get the same out of it. It is beautifully written and I could not put it down.