By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw
Not everyone is interested in subatomic physics; not everyone can face the complete reversal of their world where up is down and in is out; not everyone can live their everyday lives in the knowledge that it all might be illusionary. But everyone should try. Not least ‘cos it’s fun
It appears that the more we understand about the elemental nature of the world, the simpler it looks. We will, in due course, explain what these basic rules are and how the tiny building blocks conspire to form the world. But, lest we get too dazzled by the underlying simplicity of the Universe, a word of caution is in order: although the basic rules of the game are simple, their consequences are not necessarily easy to calculate. Our everyday experience of the world is dominated by the relationships between vast collections of many trillions of atoms, and to try to derive the behaviour of plants and people from first principles would be folly. Admitting this does not diminish the point—all phenomena really are underpinned by the quantum physics of tiny particles.
Consider the world around you. You are holding a book made of paper, the crushed pulp of a tree. Trees are machines able to take a supply of atoms and molecules, break them down and rearrange them into cooperating colonies composed of many trillions of individual parts. They do this using a molecule known as chlorophyll, composed of over a hundred carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms twisted into an intricate shape with a few magnesium and nitrogen atoms bolted on. This assembly of particles is able to capture the light that has travelled the 93 million miles from our star, a nuclear furnace the volume of a million earths, and transfer that energy into the heart of cells, where it is used to build molecules from carbon-dioxide and water, giving out life-enriching oxygen as it does so. It’s these molecular chains that form the superstructure of trees and all living things, and the paper in your book. You can read the book and understand the words because you have eyes that can convert the scattered light from the pages into electrical impulses that are interpreted by your brain, the most complex structure we know of in the Universe. We have discovered that all these things are nothing more than assemblies of atoms, and that the wide variety of atoms are constructed using only three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. We have also discovered that the protons and neutrons are themselves made up of smaller entities called quirks, and that is where things stop, as far as we can tell today. Underpinning all of this is quantum theory.
The picture of the Universe we inhabit, as revealed by modern physics, is therefore one of underlying simplicity; elegant phenomena dance away out of sight and the diversity of the macroscopic world emerges. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of modern science; the reduction of the tremendous complexity of the world, human beings included, to a description of behaviour of just a handful of tiny subatomic particles and the four forces that act between them. The best descriptions we have of three of the forces, the strong and weak nuclear forces that operate deep within the atomic nucleus and the electromagnetic force that glues atoms and molecules together, are provided by quantum theory. Only gravity, the weakest but perhaps most familiar of the four, does not at present have a satisfactory quantum description.
Quantum theory does, admittedly, have something of a reputation for weirdness, and there have been reams of drivel penned in its name. Cats can be both alive and dead; particles can be in two places at once; Heisenberg says everything is uncertain. These things are all true, but the conclusion so often drawn – that since something strange is afoot in the microworld, we are steeped in mystery – is most definitely not. Extrasensory perception, mystical healing, vibrating bracelets to protect us from radiation and who-knows-what-else are regularly smuggled into the pantheon of the possible under the cover of the word ‘quantum’. This is nonsense born from a lack of clarity of thought, wishful thinking, genuine or mischievous misunderstanding, or some unfortunate combination of all of the above. Quantum theory describes the world with precision, using mathematical laws as concrete as anything proposed by Newton or Galileo. That’s why we can compute the magnetic response of an electron with such exquisite accuracy. Quantum theory provides a description of Nature that, as we shall discover, has immense predictive and explanatory power, spanning a vast range of phenomena from silicon chips to stars.
Our goal in writing this book is to demystify quantum theory; a theoretical framework that has proved famously confusing, even to its early practitioners. Our approach will be to adopt a modern perspective, with the benefit of a century of hindsight and theoretical developments. To set the scene, however, we would like to begin our journey at the turn of the twentieth century, and survey some of the problems that led physicists to take such a radical departure from what had gone before.
Quantum theory was precipitated, as is often the case in science, by the discovery of natural phenomena that could not be explained by the scientific paradigms of the time. For quantum theory these were many and varied. A cascade of inexplicable results caused excitement and confusion, and catalysed a period of experimental and theoretical innovation that truly deserves to be accorded that most clichéd label: a golden age. The names of the protagonists are etched into the consciousness of every student of physics and dominate undergraduate lecture courses even today: Rutherford, Bohr, Planck, Einstein, Pauli, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac. There will probably never again be a time in history where so many names become associated with scientific greatness in the pursuit of a single goal; a new theory of the atoms and forces that make up the physical world. In 1924, looking back on the early decades of quantum theory, Ernest Rutherford, the New-Zealand-born physicist who discovered the atomic nucleus in Manchester, wrote: ‘The year 1896 … marked the beginning of what has been aptly termed the heroic age of Physical Science. Never before in the history of physics has there been witnessed such a period of intense activity when discoveries of fundamental importance have followed one another with such bewildering rapidity.’
But before we travel to nineteenth-century Paris and the birth of quantum theory, what of the word ‘quantum’ itself? The term entered physics in 1900, through the work of Max Planck. Planck was concerned with finding a theoretical description of the radiation emitted by hot objects – the so-called ‘black body radiation’ – apparently because he was commissioned to do so by an electric lighting company: the doors to the Universe have occasionally been opened by the prosaic. We will discuss Planck’s great insight in more detail later in the book but, for the purposes of this brief introduction, suffice to say he found that he could only explain the properties of black body radiation if he assumed that light is emitted in little packets of energy, which he called ‘quanta’. The word itself means ‘packets’ or ‘discrete’. Initially, he thought that this was purely a mathematical trick, but subsequent work in 1905 by Albert Einstein on a phenomenon called the photoelectric effect gave further support to the quantum hypothesis. These results were suggestive, because little packets of energy might be taken to be synonymous with particles.
The idea that light consists of a stream of little bullets had a long and illustrious history dating back to the birth of modern physics and Isaac Newton. But Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell appeared to have comprehensively banished any lingering doubts in 1864 in a series of papers that Albert Einstein later described as ‘the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.’ Maxwell showed that light is an electromagnetic wave, surging through space, so the idea of light as a wave had an immaculate and, it seemed, unimpeachable pedigree. Yet, in a series of experiments from 1923 to 1925 conducted at Washington University in Saint Louis, Arthur Compton and his co-workers succeeded in bouncing the quanta of light off electrons. Both behaved rather like billiard balls, providing clear evidence that Planck’s theoretical conjecture had a firm grounding in the real world. In 1926, the light quanta were christened ‘photons’. The evidence was incontrovertible – light behaves both as a wave and as a particle. That signalled the end for classical physics, and the end of the beginning for quantum theory.
Unless of course you are reading an electronic version of this article, in which case you will need to exercise your imagination.