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What Is Real?

The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
Narrated by: Greg Tremblay
Length: 11 hrs and 45 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (270 ratings)
Regular price: $24.47
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Publisher's Summary

The untold story of the heretical thinkers who dared to question the nature of our quantum universe 

Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity's finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality underlying quantum physics as meaningless. A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, Copenhagen endured, as Bohr's students vigorously protected his legacy, and the physics community favored practical experiments over philosophical arguments. As a result, questioning the status quo long meant professional ruin.

And yet, from the 1920s to today, physicists like John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett persisted in seeking the true meaning of quantum mechanics. What Is Real? is the gripping story of this battle of ideas and the courageous scientists who dared to stand up for truth.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.
©2018 Adam Becker (P)2018 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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    5 out of 5 stars

Good, "light" "read"... potential caveat below...

Any additional comments?

The thesis of this book is that there still exists an unresolved and embarrassing discrepancy between the Copenhagen interpretation of the measurement problem and alternative, “equally valid” interpretations (i.e. many worlds, pilot waves, decoherence, etc.) for enough physicists to consider it an "interesting" topic still, but not to all.

Written by a philosopher+physicist, the book leans more toward what I would expect from a journalist-philosopher who enjoys “controversial physics porn”. I gave it high marks because I think it is a great book for the general populace; and because, though I thought at first I would have preferred deeper analysis of the physics concepts underlying the main thesis of the book, I was happy to have explored this lighter perspective. In fact, it has inspired me to check out at least one other similarly-titled book.

19 of 20 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 04-25-18

The book ends "I don't know"

This book is not really about what is real and the author does not know.
Instead it is yet another, middle of the pack, retelling of a slice of the history of quantum theory.

This book does a few things better than others in this sub-sub-genera:
It disparages the Copenhagen interpretation of QM as not fit to be a theory.
It focuses on Bell, Bohm, and Everett as examples of those that questioned the Copenhagen interpretation.

This was fine as far as it went, but the author either does not understand or does not believe these alternative theories. He goes on about randomness being fundamental to quantum reality while Bell, Bohm, and Everett are trying to say there are alternatives to randomness (deterministic non-locality or multi-world or something else).

I prefer The Trouble with Physics which. I think, makes similar points better and clearer.

The narration is good, clear, and has a pleasant upbeat tone.

18 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • Dennis
  • Pocahontas, United States
  • 07-27-18

Best by far on quantum physics

Best by far on quantum physics and I have many books on the subject. Makes more sense out of all the various theories.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Where are the figures referred to? PDF please!

Great narration and history, but can be difficult to follow when complicated ideas are discussed without a PDF. Examples are when narrator refers to multiple figures ("see figure such and such") when talking about thought experiments related to Bell's inequality. I searched in vain for a PDF associated with the book, which it certainly SHOULD have.

10 of 14 people found this review helpful

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Best Science Book This Year!

If this book were a meal, it would be bursting with such flavor that you could not help going back for seconds. Indeed I read it a second time and chose to listen to Sean Carroll's Mysteries of Modern Physics lectures, from The Great Courses series, as the accompanying glass of wine and dessert because it reenforced the ideas presented in Becker's book. Listening to Sean Carroll's lecture series along with reading this book allowed me to think about how all of the discoveries made in the quantum world apply to time. I warn you though, it's a rabbit hole. Since there are no final answers yet, your brain might get caught in an obsessive trap. I have now moved on to re-reading Lisa Ranall's Warped passages, not because I am convinced of other dimensions, but because thinking about pocket dimensions and/or bubble universes seemed extremely important to me after reading Becker and Carroll together. I also can't seem to stop thinking about how all of this relates to gravity, and keep rereading sections of Gravity's Engines by Caleb Scharf. Sometimes I feel so sad when I realize I will die before someone can answer the burning questions in my mind about the way the universe works, but nothing feels better than thinking about what we do know.

While mainly focusing on the measurement problem in quantum physics (does the wave function collapse) , Becker recounts the history of many of the major discoveries and provided an extremely intuitive account of the following aspects of quantum mechanics:

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle
Double slit
Schrödinger's cat
Everett's many worlds
Copenhagen Interpretation (probability / wave function collapse)
The Bohr - Einstein debates
EPR paradox

Becker included in depth and intensely refreshing biographies of John Bell and his inequality and David Bohm's unorthodox ideas. The biography of Bohm was particularly of interest to me because not too long ago I finished a series of books about the discovery of quantum theory and while many of those books covered the other people highlighted in this book, none of them covered Bohm in the manner Becker did.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rating a book like this always makes me realize how my previous 5 star ratings muddy the waters. I want there to be a 6 star rating you could use once or twice a year, so that you can really set a book apart from others. This book would be worthy of that 6 star rating.
#tagsgiving #sweepstakes #BestScienceBook

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

So much more depth than other books about the history of quantum physics

I am a non-physicists, but enjoy the topic and have read many books on the subject intended for the lay audience. I realized how much I had been missing once I started listening to this. Excellent.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Good history of quantum theory

Overall I thought this was an excellent history of the foundations and growing up of quantum theory as well as how the biases of large figures in the field have had vast impact on the way that quantum theory is taught and thought of today. As mathematics is not used in this book there are sections that are rather awkward, but that perhaps can't be helped given the confines on non-mathematical language. In the last two chapters there are times where the defense of philosophy and the critique of scientists comes across as overly preachy, but it doesn't ruin the text as a whole.

If you are at all interested in the history of science, or if you are a physicist, then I think it is well worth your time to read

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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More history than expected but ended up liking that

There was a lot of background on key figures throughout the growth of physics. At first I was annoyed by this and wanted more physics. As the book progressed, however, I found it fascinating and essential to understanding he progression of physics.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Best book yet on foundations of quantum mechanics

I've read/listened to several books on the implications of quantum mechanics (QM) for the nature of reality. This is the best yet. The author, Adam Becker, is an astrophysicist, and knows his quantum physics. Yet, he is able to make the issues quite understandable to me, and I don't know the math of QM. I am familiar with the concepts. This is not a book for learning the concepts of QM; it's for someone who's already done quite a bit of study. (I'd suggest starting with biographies of quantum physicists and Youtube videos for laypeople).

This is a history of the Copenhagen Interpretation and two alternative interpretations--Bohmian and Many Worlds. Becker sees the issues clearly, more clearly than any other author that I've read. He cleared up for me things that I had found puzzling in the debates about foundational issues. Like that the Copenhagen Interpretation originally held that QM doesn't apply to macroscopic objects. I've read a good deal about the founders of this interpretation and, for some reason, was missing this point. When I fully understood that this view was held by Bohr and Heisenberg, many of their statements made a lot more sense.

I highly recommend this book for those who have already developed an understanding of the basics of QM, even if without knowing the math.

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Scientist scrapes the point, emerges unscathed

I was a little reluctant to get this book after seeing Becker in a number of Youtube videos. He just doesn't come off as credible. But overall I'm glad I did. The title, possibly chosen by his publisher, is a point scarcely, though repeatedly, brushed by Becker, though. If you really ask the question, credibly survey two or more sides of it. But Becker will have none of that. I guess he wants to keep his scientist card. I recommend this book as a read/listen, as it is well-done and contains many useful distinctions. Just don't expect the title to indicate the author will comprehensively deal with it in the book.

Still, "What is Real?" could have and possibly should have been written by a non-scientist. Because no scientist who hopes to see tenure, a PhD, or grants in his future would do anything to challenge any of a set of treasured notions of the ruling establishment. It's another example of a scientist boldly "speaking consensus to power." Yet, this is a tricky matter, for were a non-scientist to deal with this question more completely, the charge would be lack of qualification. And only a scientist willing to engage in career harikiri would dare.

Becker credibly shows how quantum mechanics threw into question certain ideas of physics, even science, which is typically considered the pursuit of a description of material reality. This was Einstein's real problem with Bohr's conceptualizations. While Einstein was put off by a God who "plays dice," he was far more incensed by any threat to the idea that "the moon is there even when I'm not looking at it." Did Enstein find the idea distasteful because it threatened his idea that materiality is fundamental, or because it threatened his notions of science as a description of it?

The title is obviously chosen to incite interest, though if you want a full treatment of what it indicates, you'll have to adjust your expectations. While Becker makes a credible case to explain how interpretations of quantum mechanics throw into doubt classical notions of realism, Becker's treatment seems more about how to 'fix that problem' and restore classical realism, thereby "saving science," or something like that.

I think Becker should have given time to the brilliant polymath Michael Polanyi with regard to his discussions of Positivism. It was Polanyi who really drove the hatpin through the heart of positivism and for reasons Becker ignores for some reason. Polanyi showed how, on positivism, science necessarily eschewed pure objectivism, but instead ventured into "personal, invested" pursuits.

The best parts of the book are those in which Becker hints at an evolution of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics far beyond its foundations. Yet in telling the story, he tries to drum up controversy in a way that is a bit awkward.

The worst parts of the book are where Becker remorselessly and poorly philosophizes and moralizes, though this is pretty standard fare for modern, popular science books. It would be a far better effort without that. I've read worse philosophy in books on physics, and that by big-name authors, (such as the late Stephen Hawking), but this work is rendered the poorer for it. There are better ways to achieve word count objectives.

At the end of this book, the philosophical naturalist with a solid, a priori commitment to material realism will be satisfied Becker has brought home the bacon. While someone seeking a brave and balanced assessment of the question might want to look elsewhere, I would encourage an "eyes wide open" read. You will gain valuable distinctions, even from this limited work.