The best books on quantum theory and its history

Tim Maudlin Author Of Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory
By Tim Maudlin

Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy at New York University, but my interests have always fallen at the intersection of physics and philosophy. Unable to commit to just one side or the other, I got a joint degree in Physics and Philosophy from Yale and a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. My fascination with Bell’s Theorem began when I read an article in Scientific American in 1979, and I have been trying to get to the bottom of things ever since. My most recent large project is a Founder and Director of the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics.

I wrote...

Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory

By Tim Maudlin,

Book cover of Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory

What is my book about?

Quantum theory has occasioned more philosophical and conceptual discussion than any other physical theory. It has also provided more accurate tested predictions than any other physical theory. Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory provides a rigorous but accessible presentation of the predictive formalism of non-Relativistic quantum mechanics, using a minimum of mathematics. That predictive formalism is not yet a physical theory: having a physical theory requires specifying precisely what physically exists and how it behaves. Three different approaches to understanding quantum mechanics illustrate the wide variety of possibilities still open.

The books I picked & why

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Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics: Collected Papers on Quantum Philosophy

By J.S. Bell,

Book cover of Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics: Collected Papers on Quantum Philosophy

Why this book?

John Bell’s theorem about the unavoidability of what Einstein called “spooky action-at-a-distance” in quantum mechanics set off the second quantum revolution, leading to quantum computation, quantum cryptography, and quantum teleportation among other insights. This book collects Bell’s most important papers which range in style from professionally mathematical to popular and intuitive, so there is something for everyone. Beginners can start with “Quantum Mechanics for Cosmologists” or “Six Possible Worlds of Quantum Mechanics” or “Bertlmann’s Socks and the Nature of Reality” or “La Nouvelle Cuisine”. Experts can learn from “Against ‘Measurement’”. People interested in the mathematical details can find them, and people scared by math can largely avoid them.

Quantum Mechanics and Experience

By David Z. Albert,

Book cover of Quantum Mechanics and Experience

Why this book?

Although Albert has a PhD in theoretical physics, this book is written with a philosophical audience in mind. The theory is presented with a minimum of mathematics, and there is extensive discussion of how conscious experience might fit in to the physical picture. Albert’s style is very conversational.

Sneaking a Look at God's Cards: Unraveling the Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics

By Giancarlo Ghirardi, Gerald Malsbary (translator),

Book cover of Sneaking a Look at God's Cards: Unraveling the Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics

Why this book?

Ghirardi, together with Alberto Rimini and Tulio Weber, developed the first mathematically rigorous “objective collapse” interpretation of quantum formalism. This book is aimed at a popular audience, and includes discussion of quantum computation and quantum cryptography, which is absent from the other books on the list. The mathematics is slightly greater than in Albert’s book, but does not go beyond a high school level.

What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

By Adam Becker,

Book cover of What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

Why this book?

Becker’s book is the most reliable popular account of the history of quantum theory from 1925 you can find. Many of the common myths about that history are dispelled, and much attention is paid to later figures like Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett, who kept the discussion of foundational issues alive. A good introduction for the general reader.

Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution

By Mara Beller,

Book cover of Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution

Why this book?

Beller did a lot of the historical work that Becker relies on, delving deeply into the personal interaction between Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and the other founders of quantum theory. The presentation is more scholarly than Becker’s but is a goldmine for anyone who wants to understand the fine details of how quantum theory emerged from that set of distinctive personalities.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in quantum mechanics, physics, and science?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, The Direction of Time, and Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics Is Different if you like this list.