Dear Commons Community,
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution is a new book by Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist who has held positions in Italy, France and the United States. Rovelli has written several books (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Reality Is Not What It Seems, and The Order of Time) on physics and the cosmos and in Helgoland, he provides lucid insights into quantum theory and several of the physicists who contributed to its formulation. The book’s title comes from the name of a “treeless island” in the North Sea where Werner Heisenberg had his breakthrough insights on quantum mechanics. Rovelli also uses quantum theory as the basis for exploring the mind and reality claiming that all facts are relative and based on interactions not on one universal law or vision.
If you have not read a Rovelli book, you are in for a treat. He writes with a flair and a light almost poetic style on topics that are dense by nature. He has done it again with Helgoland on a topic that Richard Feyman has been quoted as saying that “nobody understands quanta”.
I found it an interesting read that provided me with new insight to fundamental questions in the world of physics. If you are at all disposed, I recommend it.
Below is a New York Times review.
New York Times Book Review
June 8, 2021
Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
By Carlo Rovelli
Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
For many decades now, the mysteries of our quantum underworld have at times been confused with the other conundrum that confronts us, the nature of consciousness. But in “Helgoland,” the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli tackles both the quantum realm and the ways it helps us make sense of the mind with refreshing clarity and without hand-wavy mystery-mongering.
The book’s title refers to an island in the North Sea, where a 23-year-old German physicist named Werner Heisenberg had an epiphany. In 1925, Heisenberg had decamped to the treeless island to alleviate his allergies. Amid its wind-swept desolation, Heisenberg would have insights that formed the basis of modern quantum theory.
The conceptual breakthrough initiated by Heisenberg (who was mentored by Niels Bohr), and firmed up with contributions from Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrödinger and others, makes it clear that the world of the very small — that of photons, electrons, atoms and molecules — obeys rules that go against the grain of our everyday physical reality.
Take an electron that is emitted at Point A and is detected at Point B. One would assume that the electron follows a trajectory, the way a baseball does from a pitcher’s hand to a catcher’s mitt. To explain experimental observations, Heisenberg rejected the notion of a trajectory for the electron. The resulting quantum theory deals in probabilities. It lets you calculate the probability of finding the electron at Point B. It says nothing of the path the electron takes. In its most austere form, quantum theory even denies any reality to the electron until it is detected (leading some to posit that a conscious observer somehow creates reality).
Since the 1950s, scientists have tried to make quantum theory conform to the dictates of classical physics, including arguing for a hidden reality in which the electron does have a trajectory, or suggesting that the electron takes every possible path, but these paths are manifest in different worlds. Rovelli dismisses these attempts. “The cost of these approaches is to postulate a world full of invisible things.”
Instead, in “Helgoland” Rovelli explains his “relational” interpretation, in which an electron, say, has properties only when it interacts with something else. When it’s not interacting, the electron is devoid of physical properties: no position, no velocity, no trajectory. Even more radical is Rovelli’s claim that the electron’s properties are real only for the object it’s interacting with and not for other objects. “The world fractures into a play of points of view that do not admit of a univocal, global vision,” Rovelli writes. Or, as he puts it, “Facts are relative.” It’s a dramatic denunciation of physics as a discipline that provides an objective, third-person description of reality.
This perspective blurs the distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Both are “products of interactions between parts of the physical world,” Rovelli says. In arguing that the mind is itself the outcome of a complex web of interactions, Rovelli takes on dualists who distinguish between the mental and the physical and naïve materialists who say that everything begins with particles of matter with well-defined properties.
Rovelli’s writing, translated from Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, is simultaneously assured and humble. His erudition is evident, especially in his delightfully long segues into the kindred philosophies of Ernst Mach, Alexander Bogdanov (an early Bolshevik) and Nagarjuna, a second-century Buddhist thinker, whom Rovelli invokes when saying that “every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality.”
“Helgoland” is poetic and spare. Readers unfamiliar with quantum physics may struggle to get its full import. To use his theory as a metaphor, Rovelli’s lyricism may depend on how many other, possibly plodding, nitty-gritty accounts of quantum physics one may have read: The more that number, the more “Helgoland” will seem a poem.