Quantum theory: the glory and the shame

I’m one of those people who go into bookshops and buys books that I know I would love to read but then never really get the time or headspace to. Introducing Quantum Theory: a Graphic Guide, by J.P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate, was one of those books, but I found the perfect motivation to read it: a book review!

Unfortunately this master plan has been delayed by exams, barista-ing, a folk festival and my sister’s wedding, but I have now finished the book (albeit over almost 3 months) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

It follows the development of quantum theory from its roots in the classical physics of Isaac Newton right the way through all the partial theories in between to today’s, still incomplete, quantum theory as developed most recently by Einstein, Bohr, Bell and Wheeler.

It is split into three clear sections. The first is an explanation of the early developments in blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, and bright line spectra; the second a bridge and explanation of the theories surrounding wave-particle duality; and the third a description of matrix mechanics, wave mechanics and quantum algebra right up to present day.

This chronological order, whilst a very logical method, did mean that as you read the book there become many seemingly unconnected theories and experiments to remember until each section reaches its conclusion.

As a Graphic Guide the book is full of wonderful illustrations, especially of the theorists involved, as introduced on page 3. This is very helpful in maintaining the book’s engaging nature: the physicists become more like characters in a story book and so you want to know more about the progression of their theories and interactions with each other instantly, such as on page 105, which features Isaac Newton wearing boxing gloves, due to his argument about wave-particle duality with Christiaan Huygens.

The illustrations are also excellent at showing some of the inadequacies of the earlier theories, such as the ultraviolet catastrophe. There are, however a few points where the illustrations do not make sense, such as the description of interference in waves, where the picture appears to show destructive interference as being the same as constructive.

The writing in the books shows the absolute love the authors have for the eloquence and elegance of a well formed theory or equation: “Dirac did it for him in breathtaking style”, and is written with all the wry humour of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but perhaps with a few more puns: “Schrödinger was right about the first part, but dead wrong about the second!”

Full of little titbits and beautiful original diagrams, it is the kind of thing that nerds like me absolutely love. There is a copy of Thomas Young’s original double slit diagram which if viewed as directed (“The drawing can best be seen by placing your eye near the right edge and sighting at a grazing angle.”) makes it even better. There is another version of diffraction, this time in a circle, a very cool picture on its own, even without the physics behind it.

Another beautiful diagram is on page 137, where Schrödinger’s idea of the atom is visualised as 3D waves. It also includes one of my personal favourite pictures, that of the 1911 Solvay Conference in Brussels – my favourite because of how much it looks like a school photograph, but full of the instantly recognisable faces of “the first to know” that classical physics wasn’t enough anymore, especially considering that “No one believed in photons.”!

The charm and luck of some of science’s greatest discoveries is also shown, such as Bohr being accepted onto Rutherford’s team because he “liked the idea that Bohr was a football player”, and Bohr only asking because Rutherford had praised another scientist’s work.

Likewise the Pauli effect is wonderfully described: “It was an accepted fact that theorists were hopeless with experiments. But Pauli was such an exceptional theorist that just his presence alone would cause equipment to fall apart.”

This book has been a joy to read and I’m very glad that 16-year-old me picked it up in the hope that I would one day, finally read it, and so I have! It was so good in fact, that I think I’ll read it again, now that I’ve got a little less on.

About the author

Alusha Romaniszyn

Alusha Romaniszyn is a Fifth Year pupil of Stromness Academy and is planning on a degree in Physics, when she finally finishes her exams! She loves the stars and aims to go see them when she grows up, before returning to Earth to teach.