The Recommended but can be skimmed Part:
When it comes to the sciences (or academia, really) I think it’s fair to say that most people are mostly uninterested in most fields. Put more concretely, there aren’t a lot of people who spend their precious time and hard-earned money studying organic chemistry, anthropology, and linguistics. In fact, regardless of whether or not a person happens to be curious about a number of different fields, unless they work in that field or a related one, they will probably be limited to whatever popular science sources they can obtain, and often this isn’t much.
There are two big exceptions: brain sciences and quantum physics. So, naturally, specialists in these two fields have been extraordinarily careful to provide popular resources that are both accessible yet resist sensationalism and over-simplification, right? Of course not. However, we can’t really blain the physicists here (the brain sciences people can absolutely be blamed, as we often enough publish junk research, so it’s no surprise that popular works are even worse). Quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, particle physics, string theory/M-theory, etc., are hard topics for anybody to find the balance between simplicity and accuracy (I couldn’t do it). We could blame physicists for things like names like “particle physics” when “particle physics” doesn’t have any particles it has fields, but in reality the borrowing of terms from classical physics and applying them to fundamentally different concepts, systems, phenomena, etc., goes back to the founders of quantum mechanics and blaming dead people simply isn’t that satisfying.
So I have spent a lot of time in these two fields in particular trying to find good, accessible materials in these fields in particular. I’ve even written some of my own. But I fail (both in my searches and my own attempts) far more often than I succeed. So when I succeed, I get excited.
The “You can skip this entirely but if you do I promise to [insert vague and empty threats here]” part
However, I don’t just want to blurt out a new source I found, because I think it is important to quickly look at a few more typical sources and what’s wrong with them. Mostly this is because if I didn’t do this, my efforts would seem a lot more effortless and I demand the “props” I am entitled to (yes, I jest). But it’s also because reviewing a few other works is part of “research reviews”, and to help appreciate the clip below even more while being wary of popular physics media.
My first example is the most extreme way a popular physics texts can fail to find that simplicity/accuracy balance: Sir Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality. Penrose’s book is a survey of physics and mathematics and a popular science book to boot. When first I bought it a decade ago, I naively thought that it would be too overly simplistic to fulfil even a minimal amount promised the book’s subtitle promised: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.
Needless to say, I was wrong. The book has 34 chapters. By chapter 7 you’re dealing with mathematics that are typically reserved for a college course after someone has taken advanced calculus. By chapter 14 we’ve covered Hypercomplex numbers, manifolds, complex linear & abstract algebras, and we’re on calculus on manifolds. Basically, by the time one is able to understand the topic or topics covered in most chapters, one knows more about them than is in the chapter: once you can read and understand it, it doesn’t offer much of anything.
On the other hand, we have popular books like Krauss’ Universe from Nothing. I knew a linguist who’d been in academia for decades. Like most academics, he didn’t stray far from his field in terms of specialist literature and unlike me doesn’t mind getting the sensationalist, over-simplified versions of topics outside his field. So he bought Krauss’ book. He was quite disappointed because it didn’t even meet his standards (which admittedly are more normal than mine), and criticized the amount of religious (or anti-religious/atheist) content. He didn’t want a book on cosmology with an index that not only listed “god” with a number of subtopics (e.g., “Pius XII’s attempt to prove the existence of”), but also had one which was “see also theology” and a separate listing for “God in the gaps.” Ironically, I bought the book for this reason (just the way I have similar books promoting physics & cosmology as evidence for god), and was also disappointed.
Nadeau & Kafatos’ The Non-Local Universe was a bit better with some of the physics, but apparently the authors decided that this should be counter-balanced by throwing in a lot of new-age post-modernist material. I bought it to see if it was a good book to recommend as a popular physics text, not (this time) knowing about the ulterior motives, and so was even more disappointed. Even worse was Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. The authors’ admit from the start “[t]his is a controversial book”, but their caveat “nothing we say about quantum mechanics is controversial” (italics in original) isn’t true, nor do they say much of value about quantum mechanics.
Finally, there are books that are just plain popular science such as those by Susskind, Hawking, Greene, Cox, etc. Few of these are good at getting across the fundamental ideas or taking care not to be unnecessarily misleading. Virtually all of them are so afraid of making a Penrose mistake by covering mathematics that they do the impossible: convey more than a trivial and mostly misleading account of modern physics without covering some math or at least informally introducing the logic in a sufficiently approximately formal manner.
The Must Read Part
Which brings me to the subject of this post (which ironically will be a single paragraph). I have added another good source available for free and accessible to all. It is, actually, the best introduction to the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics I’ve come across. Even better, it’s from an actual course in quantum physics (recorded from a 2013 spring semester course on quantum mechanics at MIT). Now, I’m not saying that the entire course is recommended for the person who’d prefer to read a book without any math rather than Susskind’s excellent two texts The Theoretical Minimum and Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum (see also his Standford lectures from theoreticalminimum.com). I’m really “officially” only recommending the first lecture. The first lecture covers the quantum weirdness that so fascinates such a large number of people, is entirely without sensationalism, involves no math, yet somehow conveys better than any single source I’ve found how illogical the logic of QM is.
The Part that…oh screw it. Here: