Top positive review
Well written, but with an unfortunate bias
Reviewed in the United States on April 12, 2019
Among all intellectual matters, the interpretation of quantum mechanics is for me the most interesting subject there is. This was true when I studied physics, which I left for a different career in part because I care very much about what QM means (kind of the point of learning physics) but discovered that ‘shut up and calculate’ was the standard interpretation when I went in school in the ‘70s. Yet the subject remains so compelling that I’ve spent a lot of time during the last 25 years keeping up. Now that the foundations of quantum theory are a reputable subject, there is a lot of literature to study in addition to popularizations like Beyond Weird.
One interesting thing about quantum interpretation is the psychological or sociological fact that there are quite a few incompatible views, each held by many highly intelligent, thoughtful people who sort into a number of incompatible camps. There are older anti-realist views like Copenhagen, their descendants the ‘Psi-epistemic’ views that focus on information, and at least three ‘Psi-realistic’ camps – Bohm, objective collapse and Everett – where the last two come in multiple flavors.
Beyond Weird surveys this landscape, which one would hope of any such book, but Ball has a definite preference. As he says: ‘I believe that most if not all of the thinking I have discussed in this book has converged, in one way or another, on this question: what is and is not permitted about information?’ He is clearly in the epistemic, information-focused camp.
What makes it difficult to write a review of Beyond Weird, but also motivates me to write one, is that I am a confident, committed, died-in-the-wool Everettian, where that is the realist interpretation that Ball expends the greatest amount of effort arguing against. My challenge here is to resist launching into a long panegyric in favor of the Everett interpretation and a polemic refuting all of Ball’s arguments against it.
In favor of Ball, he clearly understands the physics and is an excellent writer. Would I recommend his book? Yes, for those who are spending some effort on quantum interpretations and have read, or are going to read, other authors to develop a broad view of the subject. I cannot recommend it to people for whom this will be their only read on the subject, simply because I believe the book’s conclusions are wrong! Because of this I can give it no more than four stars.
Another recent book that has sometimes been reviewed together with Ball’s is Adam Becker’s ‘What is Real?’ Becker takes a more historical, sociological (kind of Kuhnian) approach toward the development of quantum interpretation since its inception. In contrast to Ball he is partial to realism, although he remains agnostic between the three realist camps mentioned earlier. I enjoyed his book. Also, Sean Carroll (Caltech physicist) is coming out with a popularization this September entitled ‘Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime.’ I’m going to love it – I hear it’s mainly an argument for the Everett interpretation.
For what it’s worth, I will offer a reading list for those who really want to take a serious crack at quantum foundations. First, if you’re not familiar with quantum mechanics try ‘Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum’ by Leonard Susskind. Then go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) and read all their articles listed under Quantum Mechanics and then under Quantum Theory. These have long bibliographies, mainly of philosophy journal articles. Great reading lists across the philosophy of physics can be found by Googling ‘David Wallace USC’ and going to his website. Wallace is in my opinion the best professional philosopher of physics hands down, while Sean Carroll is the best philosophy writer among practicing physicists, where Max Tegmark comes in second. Wallace’s reading lists of books and articles are very thorough and evenhanded, covering the spectrum of interpretations, although in fairness he is the most vocal exponent of the Everett interpretation among philosophers. In general, free versions of most journal articles can be found on the authors’ websites, through Google Scholar, or on the University of Pittsburgh PhilSci preprint archive. All this reading will provide an even-handed rundown of the state of play in the field. It should keep you busy for a couple years. Happy reading!