9 October 2018


Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub. Totally Random: Why Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics; A Serious Comic on Entanglement. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Quantum mechanics is a way of looking at what happens to our world at the subatomic level. Atoms were posited as far back as ancient Greece, and it is believed that the philosopher Leucippus of Miletus and Democritus of Abdera, his student, first proposed the idea as early as the fifth century BCE.
It is also thought to have come independently from ancient India as well. These theories were put forward as ways of explaining the most basic building blocks of matter and, as far as we know, not based upon observation, the equipment not being available at that time. Quantum mechanics is a fundamental physics theory that attempts to explain the nature and behaviour of the smallest packets of matter and energy that we can detect in our universe.

Quantum entanglement is when two subatomic particles come into contact in such a way that when one subsequently has an action performed upon it, the other is affected in a similar manner no matter how far apart they are.

Jeffrey Bub is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology and a fellow of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science at the University of Maryland. Tanya Bub is the founder of 48th Ave Productions, a web development company. She has been a computer programmer for 20 years and has degrees in Philosophy of Science and Fine Arts.

Their book’s title makes a statement that few will dispute. It starts off by looking at entangled pairs represented by two coins being flipped. The heads-or-tails results are analysed in depth in order to examine how entanglement might work as a phenomenon, and which results would display entanglement. The history of subatomic theory is looked at along with the personalities involved. Thus we are introduced to the likes of Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and always in this context, Erwin Schrödinger and his famous feline. Statements are displayed that introduce the reader to the general discomfort felt by some of these great minds as the questionable nature of the phenomenon was opened up to them, and by them. After perusing Schrödinger the reader is moved on to the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, along with quotes and interactions by the famous physicists themselves. Lastly the practical applications, such as quantum computing and encryption are covered.

The titular statement, that nobody understands quantum mechanics, certainly seems to be borne out here. Classical physics, as physics at levels we can grasp is called, seems intuitive to most of us. Newton’s Laws may have been revolutionary in their time, but we are at a sufficient distance in time for them to be almost instinctive now. However, there seems to be little correlation between the behaviour of subatomic particles and the much larger bodies Newton spoke of. Even in trying to observe and measure them, the particles are supposed to be influenced, thus not giving the observer the “true” picture of the particle’s nature. That, of course, is when it is not acting like a wave. 

The book jumps in at the deep end and shows us the aforementioned coins which have become entangled. These are called quoins by the authors. What follows is a demonstration of how the quoins would have to act if they were, indeed, actually entangled. This takes some following. So much so, in fact, that it may tax quite a few folk. The comic layout is pleasing up to a point, but it is questionable as to how much it aids comprehension. A good deal of the graphics seem to concentrate on attempting to relax the reader and some of it, diverted into humour, distracts from the message on occasion. As a learning aid in this context there are definitely minuses as well as pluses.

This book is taking on an ambitious task; to communicate one of the most vexing and problematic issues in contemporary physics, and to the layperson to boot. There is no doubting the erudition of the authors and their grasp of a thorny subject. There is no bibliography but there are notes that expand upon the various themes. This would be a good book for someone who already has some grasp of the subject and is seeking several degrees of clarification and explanation. 
  • Trevor Pyne.

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