James Kakalios

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World

In this book I will explain the key concepts underlying quantum mechanics and show how these ideas account for the properties of metals, insulators, and semiconductors, the study of which forms the field of solid-state physics. I’ll describe how the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei and atoms, an intrinsically quantum mechanical phenomena, allow us to see inside the human body using magnetic resonance imaging and store vast libraries of information on computer hard drives.

The wonders enabled by quantum mechanics are almost too many to name: devices such as lasers, light-emitting diodes, and key-chain memory sticks; strange phenomena including superconductivity and Bose-Einstein condensation; and even brighter brights and whiter whites! (I’m not kidding! See Chapter 21!). And we’ll see how the same quantum phenomena that changed the very nature of technology in the last fifty years will similarly influence the growing field of nanotechnology in the next fifty years.

For a field of physics that has spawned applications that have had such a wide-ranging impact on our lives, it is unfortunate that quantum mechanics has such a reputation for “weirdness” and incomprehensibility. OK, maybe it is weird, but it’s certainly not impossible to understand. While the mathematics required to perform calculations in quantum physics is fairly sophisticated, its central principles can be described and understood without resorting to differential equations or matrix algebra.

In this book I invoke a “working man’s” view of quantum mechanics that has the advantage of requiring only three suspensions of disbelief, not unlike the “miracle exception from the laws of nature” that science fiction stories or superhero comic books often implicitly employ. This book is intended for non-experts interested in learning how quantum mechanics underlies many of the devices that characterize our modern lifestyle. Meditations on the interpretations of quantum theory and the “measurement problem” are fascinating, to be sure, but philosophical discussions alone do not invent the transistor. One of the most amazing aspects of quantum mechanics is that one can use it correctly and productively—even if one is confused by it.