The Bottom Line
- An excellent overview of quantum physics in accessible language
- Physics examples are tied into concrete examples from classic science fiction pulp adventures
- Mathematics involved doesn't go beyond basic high school algebra
- Coverage is certainly not "math-free," though math is fairly basic
- Most of the sci-fi examples focus on the pulp era, which will be unfamiliar to many readers
- Published in October 2010 by Gotham Books.
- 318 pages. 21 chapters divided into 6 sections, plus an Afterward, Notes, Recommended Reading section, and Index.
- Also available in audiobook version.
- Book contains many graphics, including some vintage pulp comic images, available online through the audiobook publisher.
Guide Review - The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios
In his earlier book, The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios explained physics through references to the exploits of popular culture comic book icons such as The Flash and Iron Man. Though Iron Man makes a brief appearance in The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, Kakalios has taken a step back a generation to use heroes of the pulp era of science fiction - folks like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, Dick Tracy, and The Shadow - to explain the role quantum physics plays in our modern world.
The basic argument of the book is perfectly valid: The world that we live in is not the world predicted by the science fiction authors of the early twentieth century. And why is this? Why are ray guns and flying cars not on every street corner? Here is Kakalios' basic answer, from the first page of the Introduction:
Simply put, they expected a revolution in energy, but what we got was a revolution in information.
That information revolution was thanks to quantum mechanics, and Kakalios does an expert job of guiding the reader through how quantum mechanics has led us to the diverse wonders of the modern age ... wonders that are perhaps not quite as flashy as ray guns and flying cars, but just as miraculous. Among them, consider the following inventions:
- Luminescent materials
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging
- Laser-based storage materials: CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray Disks
- Transistors (and small personal computers, such as those in cellphones and smartphones)
- Solid-state "flash" memory devices based on Giant Magnetoresistance, the discovery of which resulted in the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Kakalios draws connections to show how many of these discoveries mirror predictions made in the early pulp era. This approach lowers the intimidation factor of the physics involved, making the subject not only accessible but also more interesting than it might otherwise be to some readers.
The one major drawback of the book has little to do with Kakalios and probably more to do with the marketing department at his publishing company. The book has splashed across the cover, seeming to be almost a subtitle, that it is "A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World." The book is written to be extremely accessible, but it is nowhere near math free. The math involved is essentially high school algebra, so shouldn't be a hindrance to most readers, but advertising it as "math-free" is clearly misleading ... an issue which Kakalios himself tries to correct toward the end of his Introduction. If you want a book with no equations, this is not the book for you.
But, in fairness to Kakalios, he's minimized the mathematics about as much as you can without sacrificing scientific understanding. His emphasis is on the way that quantum physics shows up in our modern technology, so there isn't a lot about the measurement problem and similar concepts. This is a working man's guide to quantum mechanics ... so long as that working man isn't afraid of a bit of high school algebra.