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The Age of Entanglement
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B+ : well written and well presented
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The complete review's Review:
In a prefatory 'Note to the Reader' Louisa Gilder explains her approach and method in her history of quantum physics (with a focus specifically on the messy issue of entanglement), The Age of Entanglement.
There probably is no way of avoiding putting this at the fore: method and approach are distinctive and central, in some ways controversial -- and arguably questionable.
Aware of this, Gilder tries to answer those questions, making her case for her approach and explaining her method -- and trying to convince the reader that: "the risks of telling the story in this way are outweighed by the reward".
All the conversations in this book occurred in some form, on the date specified in the text, and I have fully documented the substance of every one. (The endnotes detailing the source of each quote speak for themselves.) Most are composed of direct quotes (or close paraphrases) from the trove of letters, papers, and memoirs that these physicists left behind.As it turns out, The Age of Entanglement really is -- as promised -- a book of conversations, and the participants' own words (spoken, though also written) play a dominant role. This is not history-in-dialogue -- in fact, as much of what Gilder quotes is descriptive (i.e. does not relate the back and forth of conversation) as dialogue -- and there is considerable background material and connecting filler (as well as embellishment) that is all Gilder's own. Still, the conversations are unquestionably a major building block to the whole book.
It is a remarkable achievement: fifty-eight pages of endnotes give some idea of how much Gilder integrates into the text (and where it's all coming from) -- though, again: it's not all dialogue -- , but little sense of the accomplishment. It's not exactly effortless, but it is fairly rarely forced; for the most part it reads very well, the practise of science made more up-close-and-personal. Indeed, if there's any hesitation on the reader's part it likely comes in wondering: Can this be right ? or Did s/he really say that ?, a nagging doubt that this is all a bit too good and neat to be true. The answer to the hesitations is consistently: Yes, as consultation of the endnotes will confirm -- and yet .....
Gilder's approach draws even more attention than usual to the artificiality of any historical account; it is more obviously a construct (and re-construct) than most. In a way this is welcome -- and she's entirely upfront about this, after all. Indeed, in Gilder's meticulously documented composition this book is in some ways also more transparent than most historical accounts. Yet she does take liberties, she does raise eyebrows (on her protagonists' faces, along with winks and nods and other expressions, to go along with intonations and inflections and a good deal else). It can seem ... inappropriate in a 'serious' book, as some clearly think: Jeremy Bernstein, for example, whose profiles of scientists provide some of Gilder's source material, writes in a curt Amazon.com review that: "she has mixed up fact and fiction" and complains of the "fictional gloss".
Bernstein's concerns and objections are, in part, valid -- yet, again, one does well to remember that history-writing of any sort is inevitably subjective, coloured in some (or many) ways by the author. And, again: because Gilder's presence and her handiwork are so obvious, readers know (or at least might be led to believe they know) better where they stand. Ironically, Gilder herself relies on many sources that arguably (well: certainly) are themselves not entirely reliable and unlikely to be objective: many of these conversations have been reconstructed by others, in scientists' own memoirs and elsewhere, and are unlikely to be anywhere near the verbatim record. (So also, for example, Gilder chooses to rely on Bohr's description of Einstein's thought-experiment at Solvay, rather than Einstein's own recollection; the choice seems reasonable -- she finds Einstein's written version more formal than accounts of the proceedings would suggest his spoken words had been at the time -- but obviously a science-historian might have qualms about this; to her credit -- and the credit is due fairly consistently throughout the book -- she is conscientious -- as in here noting the discrepancy in accounts.)
There is also a shift in the book itself, as it moves from the earlier part of the twentieth century -- where Gilder must rely entirely on the written record -- to the present, where many of the actors are still active and accessible; the concluding chapter has her in the audience at a 2005 conference in Vienna, and so many of the quotes used in that section: "were heard by LLG at this conference" or came in direct conversation with the participants. Because of the prominence of many of the actors central to the earlier part of the book -- Einstein ! Bohr ! -- whose lives have been gone over with fine-toothed combs, it sometimes seems everyone who ever exchanged words with them has also recorded them (or at least their versions of these encounters) for posterity, making for what might well be too much (and, as significantly: too many versions) to choose from. While Gilder handles the dialogue well throughout, things do feel slightly freer in the later chapters where participants or witnesses could be consulted and she did not have to rely solely on written records.
It can be hard to forget Gilder's method and approach, the act of reading becoming like watching a performer juggle and wondering whether she can keep it up. But she weaves the conversations in and out of the narrative with considerable aplomb. Along the way, however, are some unintended and odd consequences, such as the fact that in relying so heavily on others' words she finds herself with stilted dialogue and passages (which are, in fact, the unretouched ones -- bad translation of physicists who weren't great writers in the first place will do that). Notably among them is a section referring to Bohr -- who in his my-way-or-the-highway stubbornness is obviously the 'bad' guy in this story -- and Einstein (and Sommerfeld) travelling back and forth in a streetcar, lost in their discussions: Gilder lets the whole scene play out (over a long six pages) and yet still unnecessarily quotes Bohr summing it all up at the end:
"We rode back and forth in the streetcar," Bohr reminisced much later, "because Einstein was really interested at that time. We don't know whether his interest was more or less skeptical -- but in any case we went back and forth many times in the streetcar and what people thought of us, that is something else."It's a rare case of her relatively sure touch letting her down; the back-and-forth imagery was made more than clear enough, and the uncertainty about the nature of Einstein's interest seems clear enough as well. Indeed, it's hard not to see this particular quote as serving the sole purpose of making Bohr look just a little bit foolish. (Gilder respects Bohr, but her sympathies are very obviously entirely in the Einstein/Bohm/Bell-camp.)
A quote like this one from Bohr, as well as some of the dialogue, also stands very much in contrast to Gilder's own generally smooth and often very assured prose. Occasionally she seems to strain too hard to enliven the dialogue -- with thoughtful frowning, furrowed brows, sardonic grimaces, and the like -- though she's not always the one to blame: as often as not, say, Pauli's "malicious grin" will turn out to be authentic (or at least have been reported in a conversation or account that Gilder relies on).
Gilder can get a bit carried away: re-imagining, for example, Born in the heart of the Black Forest (where the: "trees (their bark ancient, Jurassic) are covered with snow") she writes:
The early sun sets among the crests of the trees -- with infinite wistfulness and lingering and yet, seeming to have happened all at once -- the colors change from white to long purples.Overwritten ? Perhaps -- but it's rarely safe just to brush a passage off as poetic (or other) indulgence. Her description of Heisenberg alone in Copenhagen may, at first glance, seem as much (or as little):
With his face next to the windowpane, he could see through his own ghostly reflection the trees bowing over the entrance to Faelled Park behind the institute. The light was so low that the color-sensitive cones in the inner workings of his eyes could barely operate; what he saw were shades of glowing gray. The windowpane fogged with his breath. On the desk behind him lay dozens of false starts; electron trajectories sputtering into blank paperIt may feel a bit forced, yet Gilder's choices allow the rest of the scene to unfold very satisfyingly. And for the most part her narrative flows very smoothly indeed.
Ideally, one should trust Gilder and let her get on with the story; it's unclear how willing readers will be to do that (though maybe it's just book reviewers, science writers, and historians who pay much attention to how she's put the book together). Her juggling act -- the sheer technical feat, and how she pulls it off -- can seem almost as interesting as the story itself; certainly it is, in a way, a distraction.
But there is a story here -- a fairly detailed history, in fact. While Gilder does introduce this very unusual concept of 'entanglement' -- "A condition of two or more bits of matter or light behaving, though separated, as if intimately connected", as she sums up in her useful Glossary -- very early on, she circles back to the beginning of the twentieth century and presents the whole backstory too, offering a reasonably thorough history of a swath of quantum physics.
At one point (amusingly enough: taken from one of Jeremy Bernstein's Quantum Profiles) she quotes John Bell -- who is, more than anyone else, the central figure in her story -- relating that there are half a dozen books Bell hopes to write, and:
one of these books would trace the history of the hidden-variable question and especially the psychology behind people's peculiar reaction to it. Why were people so intolerant of de Broglie's gropings and of Bohm ?This is, in part, the book Gilder has written. There's little psychoanalysis in her work, but in its documentary arc it covers much of this (albeit with less on de Broglie and more on Einstein and the EPR paper). Among the answers she offers for the long-standing intolerance: Bohr's very, very firm insistence on the primacy of the Copenhagen interpretation -- as well as the disturbing admission by one physicist that:
The ordinary way of doing quantum physics works: it's too much effort to think about another interpretation.While the older history is interesting (and well presented), much may be familiar to readers; more compelling are the events of the past half-century -- and here, also, Gilder's approach pays off, in showing how communication (and the difficulty of it and lack of it) contributed to how long it took for things to get rolling. As one physicist noted decades later:
Back in the sixties and seventies, reputable physicists did not ask questions about quantum mechanicsBut, of course, once people did start asking questions and ideas were exchanged there were tremendous advances to be made. Before it came to that, however, Gilder covers the sad case of isolated David Bohm, hounded from his university position, lost in exile in Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the great John Bell, who had the right insights but for the most part focussed his attention on other things (and who tragically died before most of the implications of his quantum work had become clear). These two very different cases of scientists on a cutting edge unable to make themselves heard -- typically even Bell's seminal paper 'On the problem of hidden variables in quantum mechanics' was misfiled by the journal he submitted it to, and through a series of non-communications its publication was delayed for some two years -- contrasts very effectively with the back-and-forth of actual dialogue and the resulting mutual prodding of scientists to move forwards found everywhere else (indeed, Gilder could have made even more of this).
The last few chapters, covering recent decades, show how far entanglement has come, and offer quick tours of some of the major practical applications, including in the fields of cryptography and quantum computing -- a reminder both of how significant this field is and of how much time was wasted in not engaging in that give and take of dealing with the questions the prevailing theories raised but which were brushed aside.
The Age of Entanglement is a fine work of history, and with its focus on history -- on how science is done rather than the actual science (though all the relevant basics -- inculding some fairly heady stuff -- are covered, and the significance of each new idea and advance conveyed relatively clearly) -- Gilder does a nice job of actually making the science more accessible. One does get some sense of how some of these advances and new concepts evolved, in conversation and interaction.
Gilder writes well and she also knows how to present a story, and her firm hand -- there are a large number of stories that unfold here, but she largely keeps them straight and clear -- is relatively unobtrusive. The immense spread of her material and the large cast of characters complicates things; an Interlude, covering the dark times of 1931 to 1933 is, with its refrain of the center not holding (yes, it is titled 'Things Fall Apart') affecting (indeed, terribly sad) but in some ways an awkward transition, perhaps for once too much of the personal too central.
Occasionally Gilder gilds her conversations too much, but most of the dialogue comes across quite naturally. Particularly appealing is the clarity and strength of her own expression -- though due to its distinctive strengths it may not be a style to everyone's liking (and then there are all those parenthetical asides; we feel right at home with those, but it's not a tic that is everybody's style). To cite the sort of example where tastes might differ, here's an example of the sort of stretch she'll make (parenthetically, as it happens, in this case):
The concept of "measurement" here became a principle of physics -- a weird, unwanted, and seemingly irreversible intrusion, like the moment the ship's rats decamp on a South Seas island hitherto populated only by marsupials.On the whole, however, the focus on the words of others serves to keep her own voice in check; overall, the balance seems fine.
Gilder begins her book by noting that Heisenberg wrote:
an autobiography of his intellect, entirely a series of reconstructed conversationsGilder doesn't follow entirely in these footsteps, as much of The Age of Entanglement is in the general tradition of historical writing (i.e. descriptive). One almost wishes she had risked more and made conversation even more central in her book than she has, but even as is it is a fine achievement -- and an enjoyable read. One does hesitate to praise -- much less endorse -- her re-creative method, for fear that others will try their hand at it as well. (We'd be all for a warning label: don't try this at home). The Age of Entanglement is very far from being just a cut-and-paste (and rearrange) job; Gilder is both meticulous and thoughtful, and has the results to show for it.
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Louisa Gilder attended Dartmouth.
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