Book review: “What is Real”

What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum PhysicsWhat Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reads like an edge-of-the-seat detective story about quantum physics. I never thought this subject was particularly friendly to being portrayed with this kind of drama. Most reading on sub-atomic physics is a kind of slog; a perfunctory sweat-labor with the objective of obtaining a walking around knowledge of the subject.

This book sets out the characters and the stakes involved with great narrative momentum. The assumptions behind the phenomenally successful equations of quantum physics (known as the “quantum foundations”) are exposed as unresolved philosophical issues. The questions surrounding the measurement problem (“who is doing the measuring”, “what constitutes a ‘measurer’?”, “why does physics insist on a discontinuity between laws ruling the very small and large?”) are still out there. And the fundamental ontological dilemma of exactly what is being measured goes begging.

This detective story never does find its culprit. That could be a problem for some but merely the effort to re-frame the basic assumptions and ask questions that have gone neglected through the power of the “Copenhagen interpretation” to squelch dissent turns this into a delicious peek into the politics of scientific discourse in general and physics in particular.

The book also considers the disaster that is logical positivism and the absolute necessity we face today of moving beyond excuses of solipsism, moral relativism and the primacy of a strictly measurable universe in this time of monumental crisis. The dilemma of living life as fully human and allowing for all humankind to continue to flourish hinges crucially on our ability to see where we have been misled by these pernicious philosophical assumptions.

 

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