Auslese: The Quantum Puzzle – The Revolution in Physics and Its Consequences

Albert Einstein in February 1950 (picture alliance / dpa)

100 years ago a dozen physicists turned our view of the world upside down. Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Nils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and others pioneered quantum theory. It says that building blocks of matter such as atoms and electrons have a wave nature – with the result that only probability statements about their whereabouts are possible and every observation changes their state. The measurement of reality that generations of scientists had worked on suddenly reached fundamental limits. Our idea of ​​reality was shaken. Today, quantum theory is considered to be the most accurately confirmed scientific theory of all time – cell phones and magnetic resonance imaging scanners, the Internet and satellite navigation are all based on their counter-intuitive laws. But their interpretation remains a mystery to this day.

Two new non-fiction books describe the historical origins of quantum theory, the eventful life and work of their fathers and the adventurous consequences of their intellectual revolution: “The Age of Blurring” by Tobias Hürter and “Helgoland” by Carlo Rovelli. The DLF non-fiction trio reveals what is worth reading.

The covers of the new non-fiction books by Tobias Hürter and Carlo Rovelli.

The covers of the new non-fiction books by Tobias Hürter and Carlo Rovelli. (Ralf Krauter, Deutschlandfunk)

Tobias Hürter: “The Age of Blurring”
A review by Michael Lange

It begins with a graduation ceremony in Paris in June 1903. The physicist in the black dress, Marie Curie, is 39 years old and at the height of her career. Shortly after receiving her doctorate, she was proposed for the Nobel Prize.

The journalist Tobias Hürter, a trained mathematician and philosopher, presents her as a hardworking, determined woman who overcomes the hurdles of her time against all odds. Her home is her laboratory, in which she reveals the secrets of atoms and their radiation step by step, regardless of her own health.

Quite different from Max Planck, who receives high-ranking guests in his upper-class house in Berlin. Hürther describes him as a Prussian man of duty who has retained a youthful enthusiasm for physics. At the reception he prefers to talk about scientific details, and when all the guests have left, he reassembles the thoughts that he has been sliding back and forth in his head like pieces of a puzzle for years. In the middle of the night he develops the radiation formula that exactly corresponds to the available measurement data. In his enthusiasm he sits down at the piano and intones Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Physicists change the world

Tobias Hürter’s book is not a historical treatise and certainly not a logically structured physics book. The strung together scenes read like the story of a rock band. Three completely different characters run into each other, let their ideas run wild and have fun shaking up the science of their time. After Marie Curie, Max Planck and others have done the preparatory work, Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg turn the teachings of traditional physics upside down. Together they achieve what they would never have succeeded individually.

Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, who is six years younger than him, are so engrossed in their conversations at a meeting in Copenhagen that they pass the right stop several times. It is precisely because they have different opinions that they create a structure of ideas that conservative physicists will defend themselves against for a long time to come. Bohr and the young high-flyer Werner Heisenberg also exchange their thoughts on long walks. You talk about physics, but also about philosophy. Heisenberg then developed the mathematical description of her world of thought one night while staying on the North Sea island of Helgoland.

In the end the bomb explodes

But little by little, new ideas come on the scene, including Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac. The discussions about the interpretation of quantum theory are becoming more controversial and dividing the quantum revolutionaries into different camps. But ultimately it is politics that tears the creative community apart. The familiarity of bygone times disappears. What remains is mutual distrust. Heisenberg comes to terms with the National Socialists and tries to develop an atomic bomb. Einstein moves the US government to start the Manhattan project – and finally the first atomic bomb detonates over Hiroshima.

Tobias Hürter has added tension to a story that has been told many times. By reassembling the life stories of various geniuses, he creates a novel-like non-fiction book that, as you read, develops more and more into a pageturner. The author presents the greats of physics in a multifaceted painting of time. He is less interested in atomic physics and quantum theory, all the more in the controversial struggle for knowledge.

The age of blurring
The brilliant and the dark years of physics 1895-1945
From Tobias Hürter
Klett-Cotta-Verlag, 400 pages, 25 euros

Carlo Rovelli: “Helgoland – How quantum theory is changing our world “
A review by Dagmar Röhrlich

The world around us seems familiar. Chair, desk, computer, glasses – everything has shape and color and weight. At least that’s what we think. However, almost 100 years ago Werner Heisenberg made a strange discovery on Heligoland: From a physical point of view, we and everything around us are something like – illusion. On the barren, treeless island to which the physicist had fled because of his bad hay fever, the 23-year-old “was the first to take a look at one of nature’s most dizzying secrets,” writes Carlo Rovelli: quantum theory. He quotes Heisenberg: “At first I was deeply shocked. I had the feeling that I was looking through the surface of the atomic phenomena to a depth deep below of strange inner beauty ”.

The new book by Rovellis, who is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, revolves around this “strange inner beauty”, because quantum theory is the “most powerful theory” that man has developed – and which, apart from the string theory, maybe strangest. Because even though we use it every day, for example as soon as we switch on the computer, nobody knows what it really means. It does not explain, but is rather a method of making incredibly accurate predictions about the behavior of matter and energy.

It takes a new perspective on reality

The theory came about because physicists like Albert Einstein or Max Planck – to name just two – proved more than 100 years ago that reality is a lot stranger than expected. How does an atom work, why do the electrons move around the nucleus at fixed intervals and with defined energies – and why in the world do they “jump” from one path to the other? With classical physics one got no further in the atomic and subatomic realm.

But quantum theory is puzzling. Even for the people who research it. Thankfully, the author does this right at the beginning. A clever move because it encourages you to read on. Carlo Rovelli explains that the “quantitative world” requires a completely new view of what we call reality. It is – so he writes – a huge network of interactions in which there are no things, only relationships. The characteristics of an object are the way in which they act on other objects.

Poetic writing on a tough topic

The world of quanta is said to be more airy than was conceived by ancient physics, airy like “Burano tip” from Venice. Rovelli knows how to articulate poetry, even on a hardcore topic like this. And that he does not expose Schrödinger’s cat to a deadly poison, but to an anesthetic so that it only falls asleep, all cat lovers will thank him – especially the reviewer, who really enjoyed reading this book. It’s exciting, informative, entertaining – you feel a little like the person in Flammerion’s woodcut “The Wanderer on the Edge of the World”, who sticks his shoulders into the celestial sphere on the horizon of his world and sees what’s behind it. With a minimum of scientific facts and theories, Carlo Rovelli grants his reader a glimpse into the dizzying abyss into which Heisenberg was the first to look.

How quantum theory is changing our world
Von Carlo Rovelli
Translated from the Italian by Enrico Heinemann
Rowohlt Verlag, 207 pages, 22 euros

The DLF non-fiction trio also recommends:

In the forest for the trees
Understand our complex world better
By Dirk Brockmann
dtv, 232 pages, 22 euros

One of the leading German complexity researchers explains how the world works. All those who want to have a better perspective on the diverse dynamic events on our planet – whether in ecology, economy, politics, society or pandemic control – will read this book with great interest and profit. (Ralf Krauter)

Pandemics – How Viruses Change the World
By Philipp Kohlhöfer, with a foreword by Christian Drosten
Verlag S. Fischer, 544 pages, 25 euros

A non-fiction book like a thriller, full of interesting details, reviews and ideas that let the much-discussed corona pandemic appear in a new light. Fast-paced, well-researched, imaginative, and very close to the scientists, especially Christian Drosten, whom the author has accompanied time and again. Philipp Kohlhöfer kidnaps us into a bat cave, clearly explains the PCR method for virus detection and herd immunity in cattle breeding. He loosens the whole thing up again and again with playful references to pop culture: Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and even Modern Talking – still horrible even after more than 30 years. A book, like the pandemic, full of surprises. (Michael Lange)

The waves of light
Christiaan Huygens and the Invention of Modern Science
By Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Translated from English by Elsbeth Ranke and Sabine Reinhardus
Hanser Verlag, 496 pages, 28 euros

Christiaan Huygens was born in the Netherlands in 1629. He was an astronomer, mathematician and physicist, discovered the Saturn moon Titan, developed a wave theory of light and built the most precise pendulum clocks of his time – to give just a brief extract of his work. But although he was one of the great naturalists of his time, hardly anyone knows this unusual man today. Hugh Aldersey-Williams wants to change that. In his book “The Waves of Light” he portrays Christiaan Huygens, who saw himself as the first professional scientist, his equally extraordinary family and the political and cultural developments of that time. There are certainly more captivatingly written portraits of scientists than this one, but the hard work that goes into them is impressive and makes the book worth reading. Because during this time the foundations for the Enlightenment were laid – and thus for our lives today. (Dagmar Röhrlich)

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