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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By J.S. Bell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John Bell, FRS was one of the leading expositors and interpreters of modern quantum theory. He is particularly famous for his discovery of the crucial difference between the predictions of conventional quantum mechanics and the implications of local causality, a concept insisted on by Einstein. John Bell's work played a major role in the development of our current understanding of the profound nature of quantum concepts and of the fundamental limitations they impose on the applicability of the classical ideas of space, time and locality. This book includes all of John Bell's published and unpublished papers on the conceptual and…

Book cover of Quantum Mechanics and Experience

Why did I love 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.

By David Z. Albert,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Quantum Mechanics and Experience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The more science tells us about the world, the stranger it looks. Ever since physics first penetrated the atom, early in this century, what it found there has stood as a radical and unanswered challenge to many of our most cherished conceptions of nature. It has literally been called into question since then whether or not there are always objective matters of fact about the whereabouts of subatomic particles, or about the locations of tables and chairs, or even about the very contents of our thoughts. A new kind of uncertainty has become a principle of science.

This book is…

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 did I love 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.

By Giancarlo Ghirardi, Gerald Malsbary (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sneaking a Look at God's Cards as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles, seems to challenge common sense. Waves behave like particles; particles behave like waves. You can tell where a particle is, but not how fast it is moving--or vice versa. An electron faced with two tiny holes will travel through both at the same time, rather than one or the other. And then there is the enigma of creation ex nihilo, in which small particles appear with their so-called antiparticles, only to disappear the next instant in a tiny puff of energy. Since its inception, physicists and philosophers have struggled to work…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Adam Becker,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked What Is Real? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity's finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality underlying quantum physics as meaningless. A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, Copenhagen endured, as Bohr's students vigorously protected his legacy, and the physics community favoured practical experiments over philosophical arguments. As a result, questioning the status quo long meant professional ruin. And yet, from the 1920s to today, physicists like John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett persisted in…

Book cover of Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution

Why did I love 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.

By Mara Beller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Quantum Dialogue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work seeks to show that science is rooted not just in conversation but in disagreement, doubt and uncertainty. Mara Beller argues that it is precisely this culture of dialogue and controversy within the scientific community that fuels creativity. Beller draws her argument from her reading of the history of the quantum revolution, especially the development of the Copenhagen interpretation. One of several competing approaches, this version succeeded largely due to the rhetorical skills of Niels Bohr and his colleagues. Using archival research, Beller shows how Bohr and others marketed their views, misrepresenting and dismissing their opponents as "unreasonable" and…

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