Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality

by Manjit Kumar

Hardcover, 2010




W. W. Norton & Company, (2010)


Describes the conflict between Einstein and Bohr over the nature of reality and the soul of science as the author discusses quantum theory -- "an idea that ignited the greatest intellectual debate of the twentieth century."

Media reviews

Kumar writes a conventional narrative history, focusing on the long-running debate between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, which took place from the mid-1920s through to the mid-1950s, over the adequacy of the quantum theory as a framework for fundamental physics.
1 more
Manjit Kumar's book is an exhaustive and brilliant account of decades of emotionally charged discovery and argument, friendship and rivalry spanning two world wars. In what also has to operate as a kind of group biography of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac et al, the
Show More
quasi-novelistic character sketches occasionally have a comic quality ("The son of a tax collector, Ludwig Boltzmann was short and stout with an impressive late 19th-century beard"); but the real meat of the book is the explanations of science and philosophical interpretation, which are pitched with an ideal clarity for the general reader. Perhaps most interestingly, although the author is admirably even-handed, it is difficult not to think of Quantum, by the end, as a resounding rehabilitation of Albert Einstein.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
There are a number of very striking themes and trends in Quantum that other reviewers have not brought out, being dazzled, no doubt, by the swift pacing, tantalizing prose and cliffhanger hooks that Kumar employs so magnificently in Quantum.

First, as someone who has struggled to understand quantum
Show More
mechanics when it is presented in textbooks as a whole system, I was delighted to find that physicists have the same problem. Even (if not especially) Albert Einstein. By taking us through the history of it, and enjoying the exhilaration of every incremental discovery, theory and step, I find I am really comfortable reading about it, and have no difficulty assimilating it. When you're along for the ride instead of the textbook, it makes a gigantic difference. Bravo, Kumar.

Second, it became painfully obvious that physics is far more philosophy than science. I felt like the arguments came from my Logic 101 class. Socrates would have enjoyed crossing swords with Bohr. The arguments of the scientists were really basic, philosophical differences of opinion, not the least bit esoteric or idiosyncratic. It seems that medicine is not the only "science" where they tell you to get a second opinion. That was a revelation, and it made physics all that more human.

Third, Quantum confirms a lifelong suspicion that this was and is a young man's game. It seems that every time things started to get stale, some precocious 26 year old student would come along with a new portion of a theory, and rock the establishment. And then live off that discovery for the rest of his life - winning the Nobel Prize (as almost every one of them eventually did), getting professorships - but never shaking the tree again. In music we would call them one hit wonders. Einstein was about the only one with two hits - brainstorms in 1905 and 1916 - but then, even he couldn't fathom the totality of quantum physics and never made another major contribution to its progress. By the age of 50 he was calling himself an "old fool".

So in addition to all the praise heaped on Quantum for its superior exposition, I think it's a wonderful addition to the discussion of the human condition. Valuable on a number of levels.

What a great book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member PiyushC
It is like High School Physics revisited with all the cool stuff that was missing in those textbooks. Manjit Kumar has done a great job tackling this otherwise overwhelming topic. It sure was the recounting of the golden era of physics with such stalwarts, some of them, less recognised, just in
Show More
contrast with the Einsteins, Bohrs, Heisenbergs and Schrodingers of the world. I personally didn't even know of the existence of Pauli, whom the author has equated with Einstein in sheer intellect. The personal chemistry between those scientists, animated through the correspondences between them, the gradual timeline with non-gradual developments in physics were all very well manifested. The book weakened in the last few chapters, probably because of the complexity of the phenomenon the author was tackling with. The author, perhaps, would have been better off, if he had given a conceptual summary of the developments in the last 25 years, rather than doing such an unsatisfactory job of forcing a closure. There was nothing I gained from the author's explanation of the future efforts made on the leggett inequality or the inequality itself, other than the name itself. The book lost some of its hold on me in the aforementioned last few chapters, but the overall experience was fantastic.

Show Less
LibraryThing member fpagan
Rather math-phobic but otherwise quite detailed. Mostly century-old stuff (science history) but presented freshly enough. Besides Einstein and Bohr, of course, people like Planck, de Broglie, Pauli, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born, Dirac, and Bell figure prominently in the story.
LibraryThing member sbarrow57
This is a great book covering the history of the struggle to understand the strange world of quantum physics. The focus on the great intellectual war between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein provides the backdrop as the author covers all of the major events from the birth of this branch of physics up
Show More
until the modern day Throughout this book I found myself recognizing a lot of the physicists from the equations or constants named after them, that I used throughout my degree.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MarthaJeanne
I really enjoyed this book. I still don't pretend to understand quantum physics, but I do feel that now I can read discussions of it more intelligently. The historical path through it helps by making it clear why the various parts of the theory were developed.
LibraryThing member page.fault
Who knew that the world of theoretical physics was so embued with scandal, ego, and rivalry? Although I'm not sure I got as much scientific knowledge out of this as I would have preferred, Kumar did an absolutely fantastic job at bringing the characters in the story of quantum to life. A brilliant
Show More
Show Less
LibraryThing member aleph123
sometimes "lost in translation" (i.e. probably it is worth reading in English, not in a translation), it is anyway entertaining and manages to be readable even on the more "technical" areas of the development of physics across the XX century- and reads more like a Crichton
Show More
"book-ready-for-a-movie-treament-and-script-conversion" than a classical, maybe more precise but certainly unappealing to outsiders, book on the history of the development of a scientific idea (and I read my fair share of those)
Show Less
LibraryThing member NewLiz
This was a tough read but if you are interested in the subject matter it is worth your time. The first few chapters are both dry and a tad too technical. Hang in there. It does get better.
LibraryThing member Hiensch
Fascinating book
LibraryThing member tjl
I really liked this book, but it's probably not a good book for most people. While it starts out with roughly high-school level physics being discussed, the later portions aren't quite as simple so that likely limits the potential audience. All that said, it takes its time building up to the
Show More
fundamental debate between Bohr and Einstein on Quantum Mechanics and I think it does a pretty good job in presenting both sides.

It's a very well written book on the history of an important field in science. Aside from the fact that it can get somewhat technical at times based upon the nature of the topic, I wish the author had covered the biographies of some of the people a bit better. In the early portions, he covers the biographies of the most important people very well, but the quality and depth of the bios drops considerably as he progresses through the book. Even some people who are presented as important people have somewhat sparse bios. That said, it's a minor point and I'd recommend this to people interested in science history.

I listened to the audio version and while the narrator did an excellent job, I think portions of the book (not large ones, but certainly parts of it) aren't well suited to audio form. I'm very interested to re-read it in print, though to understand these parts better.
Show Less
LibraryThing member markm2315
Good title anyway.


Original language



Page: 1.6907 seconds