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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


Spooky Action at a Distance

George Musser

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To purchase Spooky Action at a Distance

Title: Spooky Action at a Distance
Author: George Musser
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015
Length: 214 pages
Availability: Spooky Action at a Distance - US
Spooky Action at a Distance - UK
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  • The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time -- and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything

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Our Assessment:

B+ : accessible and entertaining overview of nonlocality

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 30/11/2015 Adam Gopnik
Wall St. Journal . 13/11/2015 John Gribbin

  From the Reviews:
  • "The ostensible subject is the mechanics of quantum entanglement; the actual subject is the entanglement of its observers. Musser presents the hard-to-grasp physics of "non-locality," and his question isnít so much how this weird thing can be true as why, given that this weird thing had been known about for so long, so many scientists were so reluctant to confront it. What keeps a scientific truth from spreading ?" - Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

  • "All this is tough going, and in spite of the authorís heroic efforts to make difficult concepts comprehensible, he does not always succeed. But the ideas he discusses 9...) illuminate concepts at the cutting edge of physics today, and nobody should expect all the loose ends to be neatly tied up. (...) Spooky Action at a Distance is an important book that provides insight into key new developments in our understanding of the nature of space, time and the universe. It will repay careful study, and I am sure it will become a well-thumbed feature of my reference shelf, while the extensive bibliography will help those who want to delve further. But this is not a book you can digest in a single reading." - John Gribbin, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of George Musser's book, Spooky Action at a Distance, is what Einstein called the phenomenon of (quantum) entanglement: essentially, separated particles that nevertheless act as though there were a(n instant) connection -- apparently impossibly so, given that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. The issue arose with the discovery of quantum mechanics, but despite Einstein's misgivings and attempts to show there were consequences that needed to be addressed (notably in his paper on the EPR paradox), already in the 1930s, there was relatively little interest or work done in this area until J.S.Bell brought the concept of entanglement to the fore again in the 1960s (and even then, it took a while for scientists to engage with Bell's groundbreaking work). (See, for example, Louisa Gilder's The Age of Entanglement for an overview of the history of entanglement.)
       Entanglement makes a mockery of the idea of locality -- that cause and effect must be local, one thing tangibly (in some form) acting on another. Musser nicely lays out how we came to believe in a local world -- but also notes that it wasn't always so. In particular, gravity, as conceived by Newton, could be seen as nonlocal -- its effect instantaneous, across any distance, without any obvious means of how that force (or whatever one wants to consider it) is transmitted. And so:

For millennia, natural philosophers recoiled from nonlocality; in the eighteenth century, they embraced it. Put simply, they were for locality until they were against it. And no sooner did scholars get used to Newtonian nonlocality when along came another U-turn and a new generation went back to thinking that the world had to be -- just had to be -- local, thereby setting up the present predicament.
       Musser entertainingly and quite accessibly guides readers along the paths this has now taken, as entanglement is now all the rage -- but the dispute over nonlocality far from over, as scientists (and philosophers) posit and test theories of what might lie behind entanglement; there's still nothing close to a consensus as to how to explain it. He considers many of the ways of seeing and addressing the question -- which necessitates a fundamental reassessment of the nature of reality and what the laws of physics might be (also, in particular, at its extremes -- hence there's considerable discussion of black holes). Focused on the concept of 'space' (as in place, location, and dimension, rather than the 'outer'-sense), he eventually notes too:
(S)pace might be the exception, not the rule; most proposed unified theories of physics suggest that the vast majority of the universe's possible states are nonspatial.
       Musser serves up many of the ways of seeing things -- the various theories floating around and being pursued -- and gives a good general idea of them (and, often -- though perhaps not always clearly enough --, their weaknesses, including the difficulty of proving them in any meaningful way, with internal consistency often pretty much the best that these often very abstract theories have to offer)).
       His tour includes meeting many of the scientists behind the theories and work, and while the short encounters can give only limited insight they add a nice human touch to the (often very) abstract theory -- and also at least suggest one of the other interesting issues raised by the subject matter, and the book, as Musser already suggests early on that: "nonlocality is an ideal case study for scientific disputes". By the midway point he reports:
When I started looking into the question of whether nature is truly nonlocal or merely puts on a good show -- and therefore whether our conventional notions of space are in as much trouble as it seems -- I figured I'd attend a conference or two, have a few chats over coffee, and sort it all out. [...] I wasn't so naïve as to think that a roomful of professors would agree, but at least I thought I should be able to pinpoint exactly where they disagreed -- to boil the dispute down to a choice between equally defensible assumptions. Often I could. But sometimes when I tried to grasp the nub of the disagreement, I found myself clutching at vapors.
       Interesting also are his somewhat disappointed observations of how many of the scientists he met seemed to speak past each other, with little constructive debate about viewpoints X or Y, as they instead each just make the same arguments about their own favored one without really engaging with the other. (Compare this also with Mara Beller's seminal Quantum Dialogue for more on the role of dialogue in scientific work.) While there are exceptions, the picture that emerges here is largely one of limited mutual engagement or truly constructive dialogue -- in part, no doubt, because of the very theoretical nature of much at issue here -- somewhat at odds with the popular picture of a scientific community that is much more interconnected, building on the work of others. So too, Musser repeatedly notes the surprising faddishness of much of the work: repeatedly, theories are ignored or not followed up on because the time just isn't right (beginning with the several decades from the 1930s on when: "nonlocality was a nonissue", simply enough).
       Spooky Action at a Distance is almost deceptively easy-going in style and presentation, Musser managing quite well to make it easy on the (lay-)reader with a veering-on-folksy tone and references (light as both wave and particle ? "That makes as much sense as a vegan butcher"), even as he presents a great deal of often complex scientific concepts. His focus tends to be on the mind-blowing different-ways-of-seeing reality aspects, rather than, say, the mathematical detail behind much of this -- no equations to worry about, but some nice, simple illustrations -- but that's perfectly fine for an introductory overview book like this. There's not all that much differentiation here -- Musser's is a buffet-book, heaping it all on one plate -- but that too is fine, and interested readers are fairly well-served with an extensive bibliography and all the references, allowing them to explore further.
       Spooky Action at a Distance is an entertaining and informative popular-science book, with Musser doing a very good job of conveying the concept (and consequences, in various possible manifestations) of nonlocality.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 November 2015

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Spooky Action at a Distance: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American journalist and author George Musser was born in 1965.

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© 2015 the complete review

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