Sunday, 29 January 2023

Helgoland - Carlo Rovelli (2020)


Rating: Excellent

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who has written a number of fascinating books about quantum theory, some of which are still languishing unread in my collection, but I bought Helgoland recently on a trip to Melbourne and, for some intuitive reason, I needed to read it now rather than later. I'm pleased that I did. Rovelli is an important physicist who has worked on the problem of linking classical physics with quantum physics, developing the theory of loop quantum gravity (not the subject of this book). Helgoland begins with Werner Heisenberg's allergy lead retreat to the German island of Helgoland in 1925, where he worked on the the mysteries of atomic behaviour and came up with the observational interpretation of quantum theory. Such insights led directly to the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger concerning the cat in the box that could either be alive or dead until it is observed. Here's where Rovelli comes in, with the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which helps to deal with the problem of reality needing an observer in order to collapse the probability wave functions of the quantum realm into solid observable 'reality'. Confused? Well, first I'd advise you to read one of the best books about quantum theory for the lay-person, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown (2005), and then read Helgoland. Cutting to the chase, however, relational interpretation posits that as quantum objects interact with other quantum objects, they are 'observed' in the course of interacting. Reality is like a hall of mirrors. In this regard Rovelli's arguments appear sound and compelling.

Heisenberg, had bad allergies

Rovelli is a fine writer, able to convey difficult concepts in a way that can be deciphered by the average person. In my opinion getting some kind of grasp on quantum physics is essential for having a deeper relationship with the universe, and therefore, reality. Rovelli also ventures into philosophical territory, but in a manner that avoids potential eye-rolling. The characters than founded quantum theory are also fascinating characters, Heisenberg, Bohr, Born, Einstein, Engels and Schrödinger, among others, are worth reading about in their own right. Rovelli touches upon these physicists in regards to how they reacted to Heisenberg's insights (that were then backed up by experiments), and it is a compelling story, one that continues today, as Rovelli is just one in a long line of thinkers to tackle quantum mechanic's mysteries. If the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then the implications are massive, including doing away with the need for an observer (in terms of humans, life and 'God'). It also, quite possibly, makes the concept that all probabilities exist all at once, with most hidden in parallel universes, redundant. It's a theory that always seemed ridiculous to me. In any case, although Helgoland does not need someone to be reading it for it to exist, go out and buy a copy and give it a read, it will spark those synapses and change the way you view the world.

Helgoland, had no pollen

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