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the Complete Review
the complete review - physics

Dance of the Photons

Anton Zeilinger

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To purchase Dance of the Photons

Title: Dance of the Photons
Author: Anton Zeilinger
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 287 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Dance of the Photons - US
Dance of the Photons - UK
Dance of the Photons - Canada
Dance of the Photons - India
Einsteins Spuk - Deutschland
  • From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation
  • Originally published, in different form, in German as Einsteins Spuk

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly informative, but a more uniform approach to presenting the material would have helped

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 1-2/2011 Peter Pesic
Falter . 15/3/2006 Wolfgang L. Reiter
Nature . 28/10/2010 Geoff Pryde
New Scientist . 6/11/2010 Dan Falk
Science . 29/10/2010 Jeremy L. O'Brien

  From the Reviews:
  • "His long history of intense involvement in the concrete details of making quantum effects visible and measurable in fundamental experiments is reflected in the book, setting it apart from many other popularizations. This account also brings a certain Viennese flavor back to the field" - Peter Pesic, American Scientist

  • "Zeilinger versteht es, unser Staunen behutsam in Verständnis zu transformieren (.....) Zeilinger ist nicht nur als Physiker innovativ, er ist auch ein einfallsreicher Autor, wenn es darum geht, komplizierte Konzepte der Physik verständlich darzustellen." - Wolfgang L. Reiter, Falter

  • "Zeilinger is at his best when detailing the experiments behind these remarkable results. He also examines the philosophical issues they raise; questions, one suspects, that could well take another century to answer." - Dan Falk, New Scientist

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:

       Dance of the Photons is meant to introduce the layman to (aspects of) the world of quantum mechanics and its real-world implications and consequences, and it does accomplish that quite well. A leading experimentalist in the field, Anton Zeilinger tries to talk readers both through the history and the actual physics, and does convey most of the fundamentals of this notoriously difficult and elusive subject-matter. With a focus specifically on quantum entanglement, including the experiments done to try to verify and understand it, as well as the real-world applications (teleportation ! as the subtitle promises), Zeilinger sticks to the fundamentals and tries to present them in relatively simple terms; there are (almost) no equations of any complexity here (i.e. beyond the most basic math) and the few that are introduced are presented as much as the landmarks they are as for their actual content, most obviously with Schrödinger's equation, which Zeilinger introduces via a picture of Schrödinger's grave (where it is written on the grave-marker).
       The most obvious problem with Dance of the Photons -- and it is obvious from the beginning -- is that Zeilinger seems unsure about how to go about this. This is a book of multiple approaches and perspectives, and the shifts prove to be quite distracting. It begins with a Prologue 'Underneath the Danube', in which Zeilinger apparently tries to pull the reader right into what is going on by writing in the first person plural and having 'us' go on a trip to an experimental set-up under the Danube -- to which 'we' (and he) then only return much later in the book. (It's more than halfway through the book that Zeilinger first pops up in the first person, acknowledging his own role in some of this research and experiments, but he certainly tries to stay in the background as long as possible.) Dissatisfied with the limitations of the 'we'-approach in talking us through it, Zeilinger introduces much of the material by bringing in the popular quantum-explaining-pair of Alice and Bob, who are first-year physics students here (i.e. come to the material with about as much knowledge (and maths) as the reader can be expected to have). Alice and Bob ask Zeilinger's next invention, a Professor Quantinger (whose name is a nice nod to cabaret-great Helmut Qualtinger), to help them understand some quantum basics. He first has experimentalist John deal with them, but then also helps guide them along (and the book also includes an appendix summarizing the entanglement-concept, 'Entanglement -- A quantum puzzle for everybody' by "A.Quantinger"); but, again, Zeilinger only sticks with this approach for so long, before ditching Alice and Bob (and his own alter-ego, Quantinger) and becoming more personally involved, focusing on various experiments and what they show.
       A uniform approach -- all the way with Alice and Bob, or even just 'we' being led through the paces -- would certainly have been more coherent (and read a whole lot better), but at least Zeilinger divides his book into very short chapters, presenting his subject-matter piece by small piece, so that he is, in one form or another (and another and another ...), able to convey quite a lot of information. Careful to present the physics at the most basic level -- Alice and Bob really are just beginners -- and going over the more complex concepts repeatedly does at least give a solid introduction to them; the various entanglement-experiments, in particular, are helpful in at least seeming to make that concept more comprehensible. And Zeilinger does effectively explain why science-fiction-type teleportation ('Beam me up, Scotty') is, alas, not going to happen -- though, as he shows, some other pretty interesting things are possible based on those peculiar quantum properties.
       Dance of the Photons also includes many illustrations, of both the blackboard-type (simple, effective) and more cartoon-like drawings; there are also several photographs. It is all fairly basic stuff, but is a useful support for the text -- and there's a nice touch of humor to some of the drawings (as, indeed, there also is to the writing).
       For the most part, Zeilinger is able to present the most significant aspects of his subject-matter well -- including quantum randomness, and information (and the conveying thereof) -- as well as the experimental approaches researchers have taken to both prove these and find real-world applications. With many books focusing on the theoretical side, Zeilinger's experimental background certainly adds to this one -- and his repeated observation that there's a lot of error in trial and error, and that the practicalities of the experiments are often very significant (as in taking account the 'lost' results, as it often proves impossible to get all the readings, or to calibrate the equipment perfectly) are welcome reminders of some of the difficulties scientists face in this sub-atomic work.
       The English edition has been updated from the 2005 German original, and Zeilinger notes near the end that:

     While this book is being finished, numerous experiments on quantum computation, quantum teleportation, and similar topics are going on in many laboratories all over the world. I am sure that in the time between the last lines of the book being written and the moment when you, the reader, have this book in your hands, a lot of new developments will have happened.
       Nevertheless, Dance of the Photons offers a decent Standortbestimmung (a where-are-we-now of these aspects of quantum physics); more importantly, it certainly serves as a decent foundation for the layman to see what and where the possibilities are in this field.
       Zeilinger is clearly a good teacher, and it is regrettable that he was not more confident in embracing one single approach in presenting his material -- all the way with Professor Q, for example -- , making for a bit of a muddle of a book as a whole. But the pieces are quite well chosen and presented, and Dance of the Photons is a solid introductory text. And even those more familiar with quantum entanglement should get something out of his discussion of the various experimental approaches to different aspects of it. Certainly, many of the implications -- especially the philosophical ones -- get only brief mention, but Zeilinger does cover quite a lot of ground here.
       (With no credited translator one can assume that Zeilinger adapted the text himself. The English version is fine and fluent, but does retain a bit of a foreigner's-voice edge to it (i.e. it sounds a bit 'off').)

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 December 2010

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Dance of the Photons: Reviews: Anton Zeilinger: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger was born in 1945. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2022.

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