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the Complete Review
the complete review - science/philosophy

Quantum Dialogue

Mara Beller

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To purchase Quantum Dialogue

Title: Quantum Dialogue
Author: Mara Beller
Genre: Science/Philosophy
Written: 1999
Length: 325 pages
Availability: Quantum Dialogue - US
Quantum Dialogue - UK
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  • The Making of a Revolution

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating, both as a case study and in suggesting an approach to the understanding of scientific creativity and advancement

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Contemporary Physics . (43)/2002 Jeremy Butterfield
Isis . 3/2001 Helge Kragh
Philosophy in Review . 12/2000 Ravi Gomatam
Philosophy of Science . 6/2002 Scott Tanona
Science . 24/3/2000 Daniel Greenberger
Times Higher Ed. . 10/3/2000 Dipankar Home
TLS . 18/2/2000 Brian Pippard

  From the Reviews:
  • "This a very impressive book: a ‘must-read’ for readers of this journal interested in thehistory of quantum physics. (...) To sum up: this is an excellent, though controversial, book. Future work on the early history of quantum theory, and especially on the history of the Copenhagen interpretation, starts here." - Jeremy Butterfield, Contemporary Physics

  • "The book is a bold attempt to analyse carefully the complex process by which the insights and predilections of individuals contributed to the emergence of a consensus. Of course, one may not agree with all the conclusions. Nevertheless, Quantum Dialogue is an intellectually stimulating piece of work, energised by a distinct point of view that should appeal to physicists and philosophers alike." - Dipankar Home, Times Higher Education

  • "Hers is a complex story, written for experts, yet full of observations that will enlighten the determined reader. (...) (I)t demands courage from the uninstructed, but promises rewards in proportion to the effort." - Brian Pippard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mara Beller's book centers around the quantum revolution, using it to describe first the "anatomy of scientific discovery" and then the "strategies of consolidation" of a particular theory (in this case, the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation). Her emphasis is on the notion of dialogue, specifically as a process used by scientists to reach their conclusions -- and a means for the historian and philosopher of science to retrace those steps and understand "how revolutionary stories in history of science are constructed."
       Beller goes on to detail a "dialogical" approach to the understanding of scientific discovery and of the dominance of specific theories over others ("a tentative program for a dialogical historiography of science"). The Copenhagen interpretation provides a convincing example of her methodology. Retelling the story of the quantum revolution, she is able to sharply differentiate it from the simplified historical accounts (often fostered by the main actors) that concentrate on the results and not how they were obtained (and, in fact, blur and omit many of the steps in seeking the appearance of inevitability about the results).
       Scientific dialogue is a fruitful area of study, because so much of science does arise out of dialogue. Science is rarely done in isolation. Indeed, science is famous for the constant exchange of ideas, the constant communication between those involved. In conversation, at conferences, in the many professional journals, in letters, and, evermore, via the Internet there is a constant flow of ideas and debate that lead to further scientific advancement.
       The quantum revolution is fairly well documented in the letters, lectures, papers, and reminiscences of the scientists involved in it. Beller makes the most of this material in re-examining the process of discovery using her dialogic approach. Her book is remarkable for this undertaking alone, a valuable chapter in the history of science. Whether in pointing out significant contributions from scientists who have since been relegated to the sidelines in historical accounts, or in showing how much retroactive re-defining of problems and approaches the quantum revolution has been subject to, Beller shines an illuminating light on much that has long been hidden in shadowy darkness.
       Much of the record is clear, yet still subject to misinterpretation. A notable example is the unfortunate consequences of the misguided hero worship around Niels Bohr. As Beller points out, "part of the Bohrian myth is that he thought very clearly and only expressed himself obscurely," and she dares suggest that, in a number of instances, his thinking too was muddled. Bohr's ambiguous presentation allows for a multitude of interpretations, satisfying different concerns of different audiences -- a situation Beller rightly sees as troublesome. Bohr's complementarity, in particular, is vulnerable to criticism because it is never clearly and consistently defined or delineated, but it generally remains above reproach. Beller shows that such uncritical acceptance can help to lead to the unwarranted hegemony of an idea (as occurred with Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation).
       Beller speaks of the "rhetoric of inevitability" surrounding the Copenhagen interpretation, pointing out that both the rhetoric and the interpretation itself rest on "two central pillars -- positivism and the doctrine of the necessity of classical concepts." As Beller shows, these are vulnerable pillars. Nevertheless, historically the rhetoric of the inevitability of the Copenhagen interpretation prevailed. It is a fascinating process that led to the adoption and success of the theory, with personality conflicts, hero worship, and a fair amount of ambiguity all playing a role -- all carefully documented and detailed by Beller.
       An excellent example is also the misconstruction of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen argument. Beller dismisses Bohr's response, and suggests why he nevertheless emerged as a victor in the argument:

A few ingenious rhetorical moves characterize Bohr's response and create the illusion of victory. By giving a short, nonmathematical summary of the dense and complex EPR paper, Bohr ensured that few would read the EPR paper itself.
       The overwhelming majority of presentations of the Bohr-Einstein debate use Bohr's nonmathematical summary of EPR. Yet this summary is misleading and introduces weaknesses not present in the original EPR paper. Those who lightly dismiss the EPR challenge dismiss in fact Bohr's version of it.
       This is one of the more contentious sections of Beller's book, source of what we are certain will be much lively debate. (We leave it to the professionals, though we acknowledge that Beller makes an impressive case for her point of view.)
       The evidence Beller presents regarding the quantum revolution clearly supports one of her conclusions:
The Copenhagen interpretation was erected, not as a consistent philosophical framework, but as a collection of local responses to changing challenges from the opposition.
       The hegemony of the Copenhagen interpretation has been surprisingly enduring, still keeping much criticism at bay. Beller addresses the fate of alternate theories, particularly David Bohm's. Again, her dialogic approach is fruitful in explaining the dominance of one interpretation -- and in suggesting where weaknesses can be found that will eventually lead to scientists moving beyond it.
       Overall Beller makes a very convincing case with her well-constructed argument. Neatly summing up her points, she presents an argument -- and a dialogic approach -- that seem an immensely useful addition to the field.

       Quantum Dialogue is a quite stunning achievement, offering a wealth of material specifically about the quantum revolution but also suggesting broader applications of Beller's approach. Clearly written, well presented, and exceptionally well researched it is an impressive example of scientific, philosophical, and historical analysis. The implications of the work are far-reaching, and it is highly recommended to any and all interested in the philosophy and history of science.
       Quantum Dialogue is a specialist book, clearly written for an academic audience. It is not highly technical, though some scientific literacy is necessary to make one's way through it and familiarity with the basics of quantum mechanics are necessary for a full understanding of a number of the points discussed. There is little demanding maths (an eigenfunction or two, relegated to the footnotes, mention of Hamiltonians and the like) and we suspect the book will be at least fundamentally comprehensible to anyone whose eyes do not blur over at the mere sight of terms such as "matrix theory" and "wave-particle duality". However, philosophical and scientific backgrounds certainly help facilitate understanding (and enjoyment) of the text.

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Quantum Dialogue: Reviews: Other Books under Review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Mara Beller (1945-2004) was a Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

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