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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

Quantum Leaps

Jeremy Bernstein

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To purchase Quantum Leaps

Title: Quantum Leaps
Author: Jeremy Bernstein
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 201 pages
Availability: Quantum Leaps - US
Quantum Leaps - UK
Quantum Leaps - Canada
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Our Assessment:

B : anecdote- and reminiscence-filled book of ... quantum leaps

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 7/1/2010 Peter Forbes
National Post . 3/8/2010 Robert Fulford
New Scientist . 11/10/2009 Saswato R. Das

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bernstein is an erudite polymath and, at 79, is not about to make concessions to the make-it-easy reader. His exposition of the quantum conundrums is clear and bracing, and a stimulating challenge. Quantum Leaps is an intellectual curiosity, redolent of the strange mental landscape inhabited by the world's greatest intellects." - Peter Forbes, The Independent

  • "(A)n engaging little book by a unique figure in science writing (.....) The breadth of Bernstein's interests and expertise reminds us by contrast how the cultures of the West have, for one reason or another, made most educated professionals into narrow specialists." - Robert Fulford, National Post

  • "This is an eclectic book by someone who understands the physics and has observed its cultural consequences first-hand." - Saswato R. Das, New Scientist

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:

       Quantum Leaps is an odd little volume in which Jeremy Bernstein reflects on and reminisces about the changing perception of and interest in quantum theory over his lifetime, focussing both on scientists' attitudes towards aspects of it as well as how everyone from writers to would-be self-help mystics and the like have taken to it -- especially the concept of 'entanglement', and the work of David Bohm and J.S.Bell.
       As Bernstein explains in his Introduction, his aim is to: "give an account of that cultural transformation" (from where Oppenheimer could dismiss someone speaking on the quantum theory of measurement by noting that "Niels Bohr had answered all those questions in the 1930s" to the huge audiences J.S.Bell attracted when speaking on the subject some thirty years later, when it was obvious Bohr hadn't answered all the questions).
       Bernstein also notes (or warns):

There is a good deal of autobiography here. I hope the reader will not find this intrusive, but that is the kind of writer I am.
       Having led a rather interesting life -- and certainly encountered many interesting people -- Bernstein's autobiographical digressions are not particularly intrusive, but they do give an odd shape to the book as a whole.
       Each of the seven chapters largely focusses on one or several people and considers quantum theory -- or rather: some part, interpretation, or aspect of it -- in some association to them. Most obviously, a chapter on 'Léon Rosenfeld' considers the Marxist take on quantum theory, and specifically the problems ideology eventually posed for Soviet scientists working in the field.
       'Quantum Buddhists' centers on the Dalai Lama, and discusses (among other things) his 1983 visit to CERN. It is typical of the mixed bag Bernstein offers: fascinating but largely unelaborated on titbits (the Dalai Lama met Karl Popper in 1973, and was tutored by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and David Bohm ("Two more disparate figures it is impossible to imagine") in quantum theory), more general background information (the Dalai Lama's early years), extensive quotes from the Dalai Lama's own writings, and a (second-hand) account of the Dalai Lama's conversation with Bell.
       As throughout, Bernstein presents a variety of interesting observations, such as Bell's that:
The Tibetans were very hazy about modern physics, and I had the impression that they did not consider these analogies significant. Physics is ephemeral and rapidly changing and applies to only a limited set of phenomena. It would be absurd to anchor your religious beliefs to theories of physics. I did not have the impression that they were looking around and grasping for straws. They seemed to be quite comfortable in their own traditions.
       Bernstein moves between physics -- the advances (and lives) of Bohm and Bell, for example -- and more popular ... applications of quantum theory, including Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters ("Reading this book is like being in a time warp", Bernstein writes of the 1979 book marrying mysticism and physics; "Try as I might, I cannot make much sense out of Zukav's book", he admits), and literary works such as the novels of Rebecca Goldstein and Michel Houellebecq.
       In Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles (published in the UK as Atomised) the main character, Michel, actually works on the team under Alain Aspect testing Bell's inequalities; Bernstein, who seems to know everyone, usefully notes: "Incidentally, Aspect told me that Houellebecq had never consulted him" -- while also admitting that the author: "gives an excellent account of the significance of the experiments". Relatively unimpressed by Houellebecq's utilizing quantum theory in his novels -- "Houellebecq simply inserts his reflections on the matter when it suits him" -- he nevertheless points out that it's clear in The Possibility of an Island that Houellebecq read Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar -- and then lets it be known that:
Gell-Mann and Hartle, who are old friends of mine, told me they were surprised to find their work discussed in this novel and had never had any contact with Houellebecq.
       What Bernstein brings up here about Houellebecq's novel(s) is not without interest, but the way he deals with it feels in part almost gratuitous (and the name/friend-dropping habit doesn't help). In fact, the approach he takes does serve a purpose in the end -- to bring in a discussion of Gell-Mann and Hartle's work -- but it's not the smoothest segue, especially since it's obvious that more could have been squeezed out of Houellebecq.
       One instance where Bernstein does squeeze harder is when he considers Tom Stoppard's Hapgood. True, the physics of this play have been examined elsewhere often enough by now, but Bernstein -- acknowledging that he is: "a Stoppardian of the deepest dye" -- here engages with the material more seriously and extensively (and the personal touch works better here, too).
       The personal reminiscences are generally very interesting, especially Bernstein's account of how he came to take up physics. These are barely chapters of his life -- just a few episodes, really -- and he has to work a bit too hard to tie a few of them in to the book (meeting Auden, for example), but his encounters with many of the players who figure in the history of quantum physics for the most part add an appealing additional layer to his account; it may have worked even better if he had taken such a more personal approach more consistently throughout.
       There are a few stylistic quirks to Quantum Leaps -- there seem to be especially many comma-issues -- and there's far too much announcing what will be done at a later point in the text, or now:
I will now begin a discussion of how John Bell became associated with the question of locality or non-locality, and will start with some biographical information about Bell.
       (There's so much of this that for a while I thought it had to be some sort of clever physicist-writer joke based on the concept of locality or action-at-a-distance, but if it is it went over the top of my head.)
       There are many appealing pieces strewn throughout this small volume, but it doesn't quite cohere; in his final, brief post-script chapter ('L'Envoi') Bernstein acknowledges: "When I started this exploration, I had no idea where it would lead", and the result seems to bear that out, as it's much more of a ramble than a neatly structured and argued history and analysis. There is a wealth of material here, and it is too bad that Bernstein did not show more patience in considering much of it. As is, it is a useful if hurried overview -- but offering quite a bit that is at least somewhat thought-provoking.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 October 2009

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Jeremy Bernstein was born in 1929.

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