Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

A book review by Bobulous.

In this book, the authors discuss the link between human consciousness and the unexpected behaviour that electrons (and photons, and atoms) demonstrate. The behaviour in question is the ability of an electron to be wholly in one place or simultaneously in two places, depending on whether a human observer decides to do a test to detect a whole electron or do a test to detect an interference pattern caused by the electron wavefunction being in two places at once.

To someone who has never encountered quantum mechanics before, the above summary will likely make no sense at all, but the authors go to great lengths to make sure that their description of these phenomena is made very, very clear. They go so far as to create a tale that describes this duality using people and huts rather than electrons and a box pair. This analogy helps to cement the idea in your head, but it did feel a little drawn out.

The idea of an electron, or a photon, or an atom, being able to demonstrably be entirely in one place, or in two places at once, seemingly at the whim of a human decision, is fascinating, and I was looking forward to the authors explaining how they felt this linked with human consciousness. Before they discuss consciousness, they first describe other relevant experiments, such as tests of Bell's Theorem that show that Any objects that have ever interacted continue to instantaneously influence each other, and I was still fascinated.

But I didn't feel that their discussion of consciousness ever left the speculative. The authors seem keen on the idea that human observation fixes the properties of particles, and probably even the properties of objects made of those particles. But the speculation about the role of consciousness, while interesting, never felt as compelling as the descriptions of demonstrable phenomena. And sometimes in these last chapters, the discussion began to wear a little.

Perhaps I'm just not knowledgeable or intelligent enough to grasp the concepts, but I ended up unconvinced that human observation is a requirement for fixing the properties of physical particles or objects. This despite the fact I came to the book eager to discover how human consciousness determines properties on the quantum level.

While not as compelling as I'd hoped it would be, this book did fill in a lot of gaps in my understanding of quantum mechanics, so I am glad to have read it.

[Update: Take a look at my review of Quantum by Manjit Kumar, which looks at the history of quantum theory. It's a more balanced overview of quantum physics than Quantum Enigma, in my humble opinion.]