Tuesday, 01. February 2022
Selection: The quantum puzzle The revolution in physics and its consequences
Quantum theory is our daily companion: cell phones or the internet are based on its bizarre laws. But what do they really mean and what happened when their discovery 100 years ago changed our view of the world forever?? Two new non-fiction books provide answers.
Ralf Krauter in conversation with Dagmar Rohrlich and Michael Lange [12.12.2021
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Tobias Hurter: "The age of fuzziness"
A review by Michael Lange
It all starts with a graduation ceremony in Paris in June 1903. The physicist in the black dress, Marie Curie, is already 39 years old and at the peak of her career. Shortly after receiving her doctorate, she is already nominated for the Nobel Prize.
Journalist Tobias Hurter, a mathematician and philosopher by training, presents her as a hard-working, determined woman who overcame the obstacles of her time against all odds. Their home is their laboratory, where they uncover the secrets of atoms and their radiation step by step, without regard for their own health.
Max Planck, who receives high-ranking guests in his upper-class house in Berlin, is quite different. Hurther describes him as a Prussian man of duty who has retained a youthful enthusiasm for physics. At the reception, he prefers to talk about scientific details, and when all the guests have left, he reassembles the thoughts that he has been moving back and forth in his head for years like pieces of a puzzle. In the middle of the night, he develops the radiation formula that accurately corresponds to the available measurement data. In his enthusiasm, he sits down at the piano and intones Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Physicists change the world
Tobias Hurter’s book is not a historical treatise and certainly not a logically structured physics book. The scenes strung together read like the story of a rock band. Three completely different characters run into each other, give free rein to their ideas and have fun stirring up the science of their time. After Marie Curie, Max Planck and others have done the groundwork, Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg turn the teachings of time-honored physics upside down. Together they achieve what they could never have done individually.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, six years his junior, are so engrossed in their conversation at a meeting in Copenhagen that they pass the right stop several times. Precisely because they disagree, they create a body of thought that conservative physicists will resist for a long time to come. Bohr and the young high-flyer Werner Heisenberg also exchange their thoughts on long walks. They talk about physics, but also about philosophy. Heisenberg then develops the mathematical description of their world of thoughts one night alone, during a stay on the North Sea island of Helgoland.
In the end, the bomb explodes
But then, little by little, new ideas appear on the scene, among them Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrodinger and Paul Dirac. Discussions about the interpretation of quantum theory are becoming more controversial, splitting quantum revolutionaries into different camps. But ultimately it is politics that tears the creative community apart. The familiarity of past times disappears. What remains is mutual distrust. Heisenberg comes to terms with the National Socialists and tries to develop an atomic bomb. Einstein persuades the U.S. government to launch the Manhattan Project – and finally the first atomic bomb detonates over Hiroshima.
Tobias Hurter has added new excitement to a frequently told story. By reassembling the life stories of various geniuses, he creates a novel-like non-fiction book that becomes more and more of a page-turner as you read it. The author presents the greats of physics in a multifaceted portrait of time. He is less interested in atomic physics and quantum theory, all the more in the controversial struggle for knowledge.
Carlo Rovelli:"Heligoland – How quantum theory is changing our world."
A review by Dagmar Rohrlich
The world around us seems familiar. Chair, desk, computer, glasses – everything has shape and color and weight. At least that is what we think. However, Werner Heisenberg made a strange discovery on Helgoland almost 100 years ago: from a physical point of view, we and everything around us are something like – illusion. On the barren, treeless island to which the physicist had taken refuge because of his bad hay fever, the 23-year-old was "the first to take a peek into one of the most dizzying mysteries of nature," writes Carlo Rovelli: quantum theory. He quotes Heisenberg: "At the first moment I was deeply shocked. I had the feeling of looking through the surface of atomic phenomena to a deep underlying ground of strange inner beauty".
This "strange inner beauty" is the subject of the new book by Rovelli, who is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, because quantum theory is the "most powerful theory" that man has developed – and perhaps the strangest, apart from string theory. Because although we use it every day, for example as soon as we switch on the computer, nobody knows what it really means. It does not explain, but rather is a method for making incredibly accurate predictions about the behavior of matter and energy.
A new view of reality is needed
The theory came into being because physicists like Albert Einstein or Max Planck – to name only two – proved more than 100 years ago that reality is a lot stranger than thought. How does an atom work, why do electrons move around the nucleus at fixed distances and with fixed energies – and why on earth do they "jump" from one orbit to another?? Classical physics did not make any progress in the atomic and subatomic realm.
But quantum theory is mysterious. Even for the people who explore it. Thankfully, the author explains this right at the beginning. A clever move, because it gives courage to read on. Carlo Rovelli explains that the "quantum world" requires a completely new view of what we call reality. This is – he writes – a huge network of interactions in which there are no things, but only relationships. The characteristics of an object are the way they affect other objects.
Poetic writing on a hard-hitting subject
Also recommended by the Dlf nonfiction trio:
In the forest for the trees
Understanding our complex world better
By Dirk Brockmann
dtv, 232 pages, 22 euros
Review by Ralf Krauter
One of Germany’s leading complexity researchers explains how the world works by deftly weaving personal experiences with an introduction to the various key aspects of complexity research: Network theory, criticality, tipping points, collective behavior and cooperation. After the professor at the Humboldt University has extracted the essence of these phenomena, he explains, among other things, how the billions of fish in a shoal coordinate their movements, why the Wagenburg mentality of lateral thinkers is so difficult to break down, and why our friends always have more acquaintances than we do ourselves. All those who want to have more insight into the many dynamic events on our planet – whether in ecology, economy, politics, society or pandemic control – will read this book with great interest and profit.
Pandemics – How Viruses Change the World
By Philipp Kohlhofer, with a foreword by Christian Drosten
Publisher S. Fischer, 544 pages, 25 Euro
Review by Michael Lange
A nonfiction book like a whodunit, chock full of interesting details, flashbacks and ideas that shed new light on the much-discussed Corona pandemic. Fast-paced, well-researched, imaginative, and very close to the scientists, especially Christian Drosten, whom the author accompanied again and again. Philipp Kohlhofer takes us into a bat cave, vividly explains the PCR method for detecting viruses and herd immunity in cattle breeding. He loosens the whole thing up again and again with playful references to pop culture: Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and even Modern Talking – still horrible even after more than 30 years. A book, like the pandemic, full of surprises.
The waves of light
Christiaan Huygens and the invention of modern science
By Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Translated from the English by Elsbeth Ranke and Sabine Reinhardus
Hanser Verlag, 496 pages, 28 euros
Review by Dagmar Rohrlich
1629 Christiaan Huygens was born in the Netherlands. He was an astronomer, mathematician and physicist, discovered Saturn’s moon Titan, developed a wave theory of light and built the most accurate pendulum clocks of his time – to give just a brief excerpt of his work. But although he was one of the great natural scientists of his time, hardly anyone today knows this unusual man. Hugh Aldersey-Williams wants to change that. In his book "The Waves of Light," he portrays Christiaan Huygens, who saw himself as the first professional natural scientist, his equally extraordinary family, and the political and cultural developments of the time. There are certainly more engagingly written portraits of scientists than this one, but the diligence that went into it is impressive and makes the book worth reading. For it was during this time that the foundations were laid for the Enlightenment – and thus for our lives today.