What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
Basic Books, March 2018
384 pages / Amazon
Science is the purely empirical pursuit of knowledge, and as such is entirely free from human whim, passion, personality, and prejudice. Or so the story goes. In What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, astrophysicist and science writer Adam Becker upends this tidy little narrative that science often tells itself and the general public, portraying the story of science as one of competing personalities, narratives, resources, and motivations.
On its face, the book lays out different and opposing interpretations of quantum physics—the branch of science which seeks to understand the building blocks of nature, blocks that determine everything from how long it takes to boil water to how our TVs, computers, and cell phones work. But Becker’s story is by no means a typical history of science. Just by browsing the chapter contents—including titles like “Something Rotten in the Eigenstate of Denmark,” “Street Brawl,” and “Outrageous Fortune”—one gets the sense of Becker’s novel take on science, including his use of literary references, which together shape the history of physics into a dramatic story rather than an encyclopedic account of scientific progress.
Becker begins with a synopsis of a great battle between two camps in physics, one of which (the Copenhagen camp of Niels Bohr and his coterie of precocious students) would determine the nature of reality through its interpretation of quantum physics. On the other end, as history has it, a disgruntled Einstein and several dissidents stubbornly cling to their old and outmoded ways. Bohr and his students triumph due to their cutting-edge insights and prescient wit, while Einstein’s camp is bogged down by tradition. The significance is that nature itself, Bohr discovers, is indeterminate and random. It’s not that we don’t yet understand what nature is doing on the smallest scale. Rather, it’s that nature itself doesn’t know what it’s doing unless it’s in interaction with other systems, notably a measuring apparatus in a laboratory. Nature is dependent upon observation, and changes depending on how we observe it. This is the prophetic wisdom that Bohr’s group imparts to us.
But is that what really happened? Becker paints a different picture, arguing that it was Bohr’s larger-than-life personality and charisma, backed by sizeable financial support from the Danish government—in addition to his prized Institute of Theoretical Physics, which trained an incoming generation of geniuses—that propelled Bohr’s interpretation to fame, thus standardizing his approach. Einstein, on the other hand, was reserved and preferred to work alone. Having no institute, students, or direct impact on the formal education of incoming physicists, his realist approach to physics—which suggested that quantum physics was incomplete and that some day we would nail down the details of nature with perfect clarity—languished through the 1920s and 30s, until it was buried in the dust that Bohr’s atomic impact kicked up.
Unraveling history like a dramatic Shakespearean plot, Becker brings these personalities to life, illuminating the influences which pushed Bohr’s tale of physics along. Wolfgang Pauli, for instance, was there to shield Bohr’s interpretation from criticism with biting criticisms of his own. “I do not mind if you think slowly,” he told one colleague, “but I do object when you publish more quickly than you can think.” In another epic putdown, he criticizes a physicist’s paper by saying, “it is not even wrong.” Dubbed “the Wrath of God,” Pauli was instrumental in advancing the Copenhagen interpretation, which Becker argues is not even really an interpretation. How can it be an interpretation, Becker writes, when many physicists don’t even agree on its central tenets and claims.
Similar acerbic remarks from the famous Caltech physicist Richard Feynman and others ward off the demons who would challenge what Becker calls, in true religious fashion, “The One True Quantum Physics,” and the “Quantum Orthodoxy.” In the United States through the 1950s, “Bohr was God and Oppie [Robert Oppenheimer] was his prophet.” And during the second half of the 20th century in particular, “quantum dissidents” who challenged Bohr’s camp, such as David Bohm and Hugh Everett, were alienated from the physics community, repudiated, ignored, and disparaged. Affiliation with Bohm or Everett especially meant career suicide, and dissertations, papers, and books that challenged the quantum orthodoxy decayed in dark and dusty places. The story of physics is thus far from a plain and simple advancement of scientific fact. Rather, it’s a dramatic play loaded with big personalities, big funding, and tenured careers at stake. In other words, the story of physics is a human story like any other.
So what is the truth? What is nature really? Becker wades through the drama and attempts to decipher the facts through the smokescreens of charisma, prestige, and money. Foregrounding the inconsistencies of Bohr’s interpretation, and confronting the upsettingly indeterminate and seemingly illogical picture of nature that the Copenhagen camp leaves us with, Becker sides with the quantum dissident Hugh Everett. In the Many Worlds model, Everett proposes a solution that would in many ways restore Einstein’s realist picture of nature, and that would comprise a tidy system of facts that depended in no way on human observation or interaction. And it’s perfectly possible. The problem? To solve the alleged problems in the Copenhagen interpretation, Everett introduces an infinity of possible universes. For every given event, that is, the universe splits off into infinite branches, each manifesting one possible outcome. What’s crazier? Each universe that splits off occurs in the same spacetime, but supposedly in another dimension. This much Becker admits. Due to his own bias, however, he does not grapple with the problems of the Many Worlds interpretation with the same depth and rigor that he applies to the Copenhagen interpretation. Are you prepared to grant, for instance, that there are infinite universes for every type of breakfast you might have chosen today? Is the cost of the Many Worlds interpretation too high? Becker doesn’t seem to think so.
So what does quantum physics mean? Why does it matter what particles do, or whether they have a nature or only take on definite characteristics in the laboratory? In other words, why should we care about an argument between several factions of career-motivated physicists? These are the big questions undergirding Becker’s book. While Becker admits that the story of quantum physics is still unfinished, he shows that this story, depending on how you interpret it, changes the stories we tell about ourselves. Do we live as infinite versions of ourselves in all possible worlds? Is there some comfort in believing that there is a version of yourself who might have chosen otherwise? Or perhaps you are that version, and you inhabit that world where you have chosen wisely? How does that affect our belief in free will and morality if all worlds play out equally?
What if Bohr was right? If so, perhaps Copenhagen could help us make sense of the chaos in the cosmos, the disorder among the order. Perhaps Bohr’s picture is more conducive to a worldview in which indeterminacy, uncertainty, randomness, and the like are primary rather than secondary, crucial to our humanity rather than a threat to it, and absolutely necessary in positioning ourselves, both metaphorically and materially, in the depths of a cosmos we have only begun to apprehend. Time will tell. Facts can and do emerge. But facts do not speak for themselves. They require an interpretation, and Becker leaves us with the point that interpretations—no matter how well funded or cleverly defended—must stand on more than big personalities and powerful institutions if they are to end up on the right side of history. As for quantum physics, the story remains unfinished.
Ryan David Leack teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California, and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside, where he studied the productive intersections between rhetoric, quantum mechanics, philosophy, composition, and poetry. In particular, Ryan studies the coalescing historical and conceptual developments between rhetoric and physics, as well as the implications for the teaching of writing and rhetoric. Ryan’s creative work has appeared in Pif, Westwind, RipRap, Cont