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Heinz R Pagels

The Cosmic Code

Category: Science | Published: 1982 | Review Added: 16-08-2004 | Updated: 27-08-2004

Rating: 4 - A top read

A thorough, no-nonsense introduction to quantum physics for the general reader. Pagels helpfully devotes two whole chapters to an explanation of Einstein's theories about the photoelectric effect and relativity, the revolutionary ideas out of which quantum theory was to emerge. He then describes the historical development of quantum theory in a clear and interesting way, before going on to present the quantum world in detail, particle by particle. Finally, he explains the mathematical nitty-gritty of how the chief discoveries of quantum mechanics were arrived at.

The book is well structured, with the author gradually working his way down from general concepts to detail, at a pace suited to the intelligent non-specialist reader. Inevitably, perhaps, there were points where I got left behind completely. In particular, the Gauge Field Theory Revolution (Part 2, Chapter 10) sure sounds important, but it was completely Greek to me :( Pagels also lost me in his explanation of Bell's Theorem, a crucial component of modern quantum theory. (My confusion was largely cleared by subsequently reading Gary Felder's excellent paper 'Spooky Action at a Distance': quantum newbies might want to check this out before attempting Chapter 12 of Part 1.)

Ultimately, quantum mechanics is a set of mathematical tools that allow scientists to understand and predict subatomic processes on paper. However, there is no agreement as to what kind of reality they describe in philosophical terms. However you look at it, quantum physics implies a world far weirder than common sense allows, with its suggestions of instant 'communication' between particles light years apart and a universe that is 'created' only when it is measured. The great Richard Feynman once said, 'I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum physics.' Let's face it, if he didn't understand his own subject, what hope does that leave for the rest of us?! Only, clearly, that of beginning to understand why the subject can't be understood - and The Cosmic Code is a pretty good place to start that quest for enlightened bafflement.

(Note: this book was written in 1982 and is, I believe, somewhat out of date. Unfortunately revisions are unlikely to be forthcoming, as Pagels died in a mountaineering accident in 1988 - a death he envisaged in a dream that he recounts in the last paragraph of the book. Spooky!)

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