The best non-technical books about quantum physics-our most fundamental description the universe

Art Hobson Author Of Tales of the Quantum: Understanding Physics' Most Fundamental Theory
By Art Hobson

Who am I?

Since my first college course in quantum physics, I have been fascinated with this enigmatic, infinitely interesting theory. It's our most fundamental description of the universe, it's been found to be unerringly accurate, yet it's quite subtle to interpret. Even more intriguingly, "nobody really understands quantum physics" (as Richard Feynman put it). For example, the theory's central concept, the wave function, is interpreted radically differently by different physicists. I have always yearned to grasp, at least to my own satisfaction, a comprehensive understanding of this theory. Since retirement 23 years ago, I have pursued this passion nearly full-time and found some answers, leading to several technical papers and a popular book.


I wrote...

Tales of the Quantum: Understanding Physics' Most Fundamental Theory

By Art Hobson,

Book cover of Tales of the Quantum: Understanding Physics' Most Fundamental Theory

What is my book about?

You've heard that we live in a world made of atoms. More fundamentally, we live in a universe made of "quanta." Many things – light, radio, electricity, gravitational fields, neutron stars, black holes, dark energy – are not made of atoms. But everything is made of highly unified bundles of energy called "quanta" that obey the rules of quantum physics. This is a book about these quanta and their unexpected behavior tales, if you will, of the quantum.  

Quanta are reputed to be incomprehensible. But, although their peculiar habits are not what we would have expected, these habits are comprehensible. This book explains those habits – wave-particle duality, fundamental randomness, quantum states, being in two places at once, entanglement, non-locality, Schrodinger's cat, quantum jumps – in everyday language, without mathematics.

The books I picked & why

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The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn

By Louisa Gilder,

Book cover of The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn

Why this book?

Guilder uses historical vignettes to describe how entanglement came to be regarded as a – or perhaps thecentral pillar of quantum physics. For example, we share a streetcar ride through Copenhagen in 1923 with Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Arnold Sommerfeld. Although we don't know precisely what they discussed, Guilder indicates what they probably discussed based on quotations from letters and other evidence. Thus, the book reads like a historical novel. It centers on the distant correlations, dubbed (by Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger) "spooky action at a distance." Since 1964, physicists have shown this astonishing phenomenon, now called "non-locality," to be clearly predicted by quantum theory and fully confirmed by experiment. This development is the "rebirth" of quantum physics referred to in the title.  Guilder is a non-scientist who writes beautifully with a good grasp of physics.


Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality

By Manjit Kumar,

Book cover of Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality

Why this book?

Given the radically distinct and often incongruent views of what quantum physics means, it is wise to glean a balanced sense of many views by studying the topic's history. Kumar's telling of the great, decades-long debate between two of the field's leading practitioners is authoritative and excitingly told. The book centers on the founding of quantum physics during the 1920s, the famous 1927 Solvay Conference on photons and electrons, and the thoughtful debate between Bohr and Einstein concerning the nature of reality. The author is a physicist, philosopher, and science writer.


The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

By Sean Carroll,

Book cover of The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

Why this book?

Unlike the other books on my list, Carroll's book focuses on quantum physics at the very high energies attained in experimental facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. The book was published in 2012, the year LHC scientists announced the momentous discovery of the particle whose universe-filling quantum field causes other particles to acquire a non-zero mass. One reason for my enthusiasm about this book is Carroll's view that the universe is made of "fields" such as the electromagnetic field whose vibrations (or "excitations") are particles such as the proton, electron, and atom. Carroll is an experienced science writer and a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. 


The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments

By Jim Baggott,

Book cover of The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments

Why this book?

Baggott's book is a rich, readable account of quantum physics as viewed at 40 key "moments" in its history. These moments range from the trouble with classical physics in 1900, leading to the notion of discrete "quanta" of energy, to the hunt for the Higgs particle at the CERN accelerator laboratory. Other moments include the invention of Schrodinger's equation, the Uncertainty Principle, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The author is an experienced science writer and former academic scientist.


The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does)

By Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw,

Book cover of The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does)

Why this book?

This is a competent, charming account of the various mind-boggling quantum phenomena. It includes the uncertainty principle, the quantum atom, how quanta interact, the quantum vacuum, and the Standard Model. The book also ventures into the discussion of the transistor (the device behind the digital revolution) and the death of stars. Uniquely, we learn why all these results follow the basic principles of quantum physics. The authors explain these phenomena in terms of a qualitative version of Feynman's path-analysis approach to quantum physics. I hasten to emphasize that this analysis is understandable by non-scientists, and shines a nice light on why the quantum world has the unexpected properties that it does have. Cox's popular writings are widely read in the UK. Both authors are physics professors at Manchester University.


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