From the Archives: The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science by Sheilla Jones

Feb 06 2011 Published by under book review, history, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science, is from November 19, 2008.


Enough with the physics books, already! After a summer of more or less nothing but physics books, I should have probably tried something a bit different. On the other hand, this book is about one of the most interesting periods in all the history of physics -- that transitional time in the first third of the 20th century when some of the greatest minds of all time worked out the foundations of quantum physics. Back when I read Isaacson's Einstein book, that was one of the periods that fascinated me the most, especially because it was so instructive to see a brilliant mind like Einstein be so doggedly wrong. In a way, it gives hope to us all.

But, back to the book at hand.

Canadian journalist Sheilla Jones is basically telling the story of the rise of quantum theory through the stories of ten men: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrodinger, Louis de Broglie, Pascual Jordan and Paul Ehrenfest. It is through their interactions up until the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 that the story is told.

Jones does an admirable job of telling those 10 interrelated stories in a clear and comprehensible way. Some are highlighted more, such as Einstein, Bohr or Born and some less, such as Jordan or Dirac. However, if one person can said to be the main lens through which Jones tells the story, it is the tragic, troubled Paul Ehrenfest, the confidant of Einstein who ultimately committed suicide while also taking the life of his disabled son. His doubts and insecurities concerning his own abilities as a physicist are a perfect mirror in many ways for the perceived doubts and insecurities of the new quantum reality that those men had to come to grips with.

Jones does a fine job of telling a scientific story through biographical details, weaving in the darkening tale of pre-Nazi-era Europe in the tale as well. If I have any complaint, it's that the actually recounting of the Solvay Conference was a bit of an anti-climax. This is easily one of the best science books of the year and I would certainly expect it to make many of the year's best lists, especially in Canada.

I would easily recommend this book to any academic library that collects in popular science or the history of science. It would also be suitable for any public library. With the holiday season upon us, there would be worse gift ideas for the historically or scientifically minded.

Jones, Sheilla. The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2008. 323pp. ISBN-13: 978-0195369090

3 responses so far

  • Birger Johansson says:

    By one of those coincidences, my mom was born at the time of the 1927 Solvay Conference. So I know it is now 83 years and four months ago.

  • How can one be sure Einstein's view was "doggedly wrong"? Is the game over when there still is no physical description of how the electrons do what they do inside the atom? De Broglie and Schroedinger as well as Einstein believed that a "real" picture someday would be found. It still could happen. If an extraterrestrial were one day to show up and display a kind of model these three guys were hoping for, wouldn't it be rejected out of hand by our Earthbound team on the ground that it violates of the U.P.?

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