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3 Books, History of E&M and making sense of QM

Three books recently borrowed all turned out to be history of science with a focus on the end of electricity and magnetism and the beginning of quantum mechanics.

The first was The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution by Henry Schlesinger. That turned out not to be very much about batteries but rather quite a rundown on the history of efforts to understand electricity and magnetism.

Next up was How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser which is all about the paranormal and psychic charlatan’s efforts to use some of the quirks of QM to ‘explain’ their fantasies. The thesis is that these efforts raised questions which forced the physics community to address basic philosophical issues and investigate non-practical areas of QM that later turned out to impact modern communications.

Finally: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character: Adventures of a Curious Character. Feynman was a 2nd generation modern physicist standing on the shoulders of, and working with and under, those who first cracked the shell of classical physics such as Einstein, Bohr, and Schrödinger. The book is his stories about a period of time when ‘the beat generation’ and its Bohemian dialectic were the avant garde.

“Holmes characterized the Beat Generation as a cultural revolution in progress, made by a post-World War II generation of disaffiliated young people coming of age into a Cold War world without spiritual values they could honor. Instead of obeying authority and conforming to traditional middle-class materialistic aspirations, these young people dealt as best they could with what Holmes called their “will to believe, even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms.””[beat scene]

Schlesinger’s book isn’t that much about batteries and portable power but is worthwhile for some gap filling such as in the precursors to the work of Galileo and Newton and the role of the lodestone in understanding magnetism. The fact that there were minerals with magnetic properties made experimentation much more tangible than it was with electricity where devices to store and manufacture electrical charges and current had to be invented and made. It seems, in retrospect, that the book also tends towards the modern ethos of trying to minimize the classical heroes (such as Galileo and Newton) and modern technology (as in the appendix on the Baghdad Battery), This aspect isn’t sufficiently significant to warp the book, just something to note about the current trend in attitudes towards science and technology.

Kaiser’s book is another of those leaning towards the ‘truth to power’ sorts of ideology. Again, the modern taint isn’t overwhelming but it does flavor the book. It has some interesting stories about how the traditional science funding model of patronage survived in the era of government grants. There are also lessons in how concepts such as Bell’s theories of entanglement can be abused in trying to rationalize spoon bending or mind reading. The kicker for me was that he was describing the intellectual environment during my college career.

Feynman’s stories put Kaiser’s “Hippies” in perspective as he expressed many of the same inclinations that Kaiser describes but a whole generation earlier and by a “shut up and calculate” capable physicist who also was into conceptual understanding. What separates Feynmann from many of Kaiser’s heroes were things like intellectual integrity and competence and a firm foothold in reality.

E&M ended the 19th century with many puzzles. The Michelson–Morley experiment showed that light went past you at exactly the same speed no matter whether you were heading into it or away from it. Einstein’s 1905 paper on Photons and energy quanta clarified another puzzle. Marie Curie’s research typified another. It was the effort to create a theory to explain how these puzzles worked that resulted in QM. The first generation of that effort was prior to WW II and the 2nd, Feynman’s, was in the score of years after that war. Kaiser’s period from the mid sixties up until the 90’s, was one of stabilization and exploration of implications and consequences. The theoretical work really didn’t start making significant advances until ideas such as string theory became more mature.

As Kaiser notes, we are beginning to be able to use some of this new way of understanding nature in practical technologies. That doesn’t include teleportation but rather more mundane things such as security in communications links. But people will always have their fantasies and will always explore. Sometimes they may find something. Who knows?

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