“In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat” by John Gribbin

Quantum physics is deeply unsettling. The thought experiment that gives the book its title, first proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger, imagines that there is a cat sealed in a windowless box, inside of which is a phial of poisonous gas that is triggered when a radioactive substance emits a certain particle. However, according to quantum physics, we can’t predict when that particle will be emitted. So, until we open the box, we don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead – in fact, as far as the laws of the universe go, it is both and neither. The two competing theories that attempt to explain this paradox seem (to the layperson) equally implausible. The Copenhagen interpretation proposes that, until an observer ‘fixes’ the results of the experiment by opening the box, the cat is neither alive nor dead, but both. The Many Worlds interpretation proposes that quantum indeterminacy results in alternative worlds where both possible outcomes are respectively fulfilled (one universe contains a live cat, another contains the dead one). It’s crazy stuff. And it doesn’t stop there – but I’ll let you read the book for yourself.

However, whilst physicists may not understand why the sub-atomic world behaves the way it does, quantum theory is a hugely powerful tool that has provided the basis for many of the advances of modern science and technology – nuclear energy, lasers, microwaves, computers, even playing a role in the discovery of DNA. In fact, it wouldn’t be too strong a claim to say that our modern world would be unthinkable without it. So, in Gribbin’s words, we have a ‘Quantum cookbook’ with which we can exert an extraordinary power over nature, even if we don’t fully understand why the recipes work or what the ingredients are.

This is a difficult subject, and Gribbin does an admirable job of attempting to give a full account of the development of quantum theory in clear historical terms whilst also endeavouring to explain its advances in accessible language. However, given the complexity of the material, there are some sections which will leave the layperson baffled. This is perhaps unavoidable, and it would have been worse if the author had succumbed to the temptation to oversimplify. So, I’ll probably read it again at some point, and hope that more of it sinks in. Well worth a read, though, and probably – even though it’s getting on a bit now – still the classic introduction to the subject.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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