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- The Quantum Universe
In their new book, the physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw adopt Feynman's clock-face device, but press even further. In Feynman's hands, the clocks were never more than an analogy. Feynman's brilliant presentation was still largely "tell" rather than "show": his creativity lay in finding new ways to introduce hard ideas, but not really to justify them from first principles for non-physicist readers. Cox and Forshaw, on the other hand, put their tiny clocks to work — actually using them to calculate real results and deriving such fundamental notions as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, wave-particle duality and even Pauli's exclusion principle.
This is not just "tell", but "show" too. With clear prose and helpful diagrams, they march the reader along a series of arguments so that nonspecialists can get a sense of where the core concepts come from. They apply the clever clock-face scheme to many topics that one often sees treated in popular books, such as the fundamental nuclear forces that keep matter tightly bound together and occasionally make it fall apart in radioactive decay ; and they broach the deep question of why objects have any mass at all, for which physicists usually invoke the still-elusive Higgs particle and the ongoing quest to find it in hulking machines such as the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.
But admirably, Cox and Forshaw also treat topics that do not usually show up in popular books, such as the behaviour of semiconductors and the operation of transistors — the ideas that have powered the electronics and communications revolutions of the past half century. That same spirit infuses their epilogue on the life and death of stars.
Their closing discussion concerns the so-called "Chandrasekhar limit", a maximum mass below which a star may putter along peacefully in perpetuity in a certain kind of end-state, but above which dramatic cataclysms await, such as a supernova explosion and the formation of a black hole. The authors' discussion of this fundamental result is a walking tour of how physicists think about such topics. As they write: "We could present a very broad overview of how the Chandrasekhar mass comes about, but instead we'd like to do a little bit more: we'd like to describe the actual calculation because that is what really makes the spine tingle.
The narration is much more loose and chatty even than Feynman's famously approachable prose, though the distinction makes good sense. Feynman delivered his popularisations in an era that had never seen an internet browser, let alone YouTube videos, blogs or tweets.
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The conversational tone of Cox and Forshaw fits as easily in our time as Feynman's did in his. Quantum Universe provides another sign of the times. The first digital electronic wristwatches began to appear in the early s.
One wonders whether the next generation of readers — those who might come to the subject a quarter of a century from now, just as Cox and Forshaw have reached back a quarter of a century to Feynman's book — will even know how to represent time with analogue hands spinning around a circle. Precisely because of the great successes of quantum theory, and the digital electronics boom it has driven, the powerful clock-face technique that Cox and Forshaw put to such good use could itself become a thing of the past.
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