The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality is a history book masquerading as a physics book, and I like that. I’m just as interested in the history of science as I am in science itself. As the title implies, Paul Halpern focuses on the lives of Feynman and Wheeler, protégés who individually and collectively had their fingers on the pulse of physics for much of the twentieth century. Halpern provides valuable insights into the lives of these two physicists and puts their contributions into the context of their lives and history. That being said, I do feel like this book is incredibly uneven. I received this eARC for free from NetGalley and Perseus Books in exchange for a review … apparently it has been out for a while now though….
Let’s talk some critiques first.
The Quantum Labyrinth doesn’t seem to know who its target audience is. Most physics books start from very basic principles and slowly develop more complicated principles of quantum mechanics on top of that. Halpern doesn’t; he goes hard. Halpern gets very technical in some respects, technical enough that a lay audience not as steeped in physics books as I am would be left wondering about a lot of things. At some points I was wondering if I had skipped an explanation. Just when I was convinced this book is aimed more at an undergrad physics student than anyone else, he’ll hit us with more elementary definitions of a force or a particle or a property—stuff a general audience might know—and I’ll wonder … why.
My related, and main criticism, is that this book is poorly organized and unfocused. The subtitle makes a grand claim, yet Halpern doesn’t pursue this idea of “revolutionizing time and reality” with any kind of direct arguments. He mentions how Feynman and Wheeler bandied about the idea of positrons being electrons travelling back in time (and perhaps all the same electron), yes; he mentions how Wheeler gradually comes around to studying relativity and in fact becomes a leading expert in that field, sure. But these are small details amidst a soup of other small details. Halpern chronicles the physics careers of these individuals, but not in a unified way. If Halpern were sitting in my English class working on an essay I’d remind him that everything needs to explicitly relate back to his thesis….
But there is good here too! Halpern really does include a lot of excellent detail about the lives of these two physicists. I learned so much about these two, who until now were names or the progenitors of concepts I’ve learned about. I learned more about Feynman as a character and a personality, the way he enjoyed the drums, got into stage-acting later in his life, etc. I love hearing these details about historical figures, humanizing them, putting them into the context of their times. Scientists are only, ultimately human, after all, and it’s really important we remember that.
Similarly, this book really made me think about how the theoretical part of science is related to social networking. So much of Feynman and Wheeler’s ideas are the fruit of discussions with each other or other physicists at conferences, impromptu meetings, or chats at one another’s homes. Whether it was a university position or working together on the Manhattan Project, these physicists always influenced each other’s ideas. Whether or not Bohr or another juggernaut liked your idea had a big influence on how many others took it up. A passing comment from Einstein or someone else might give you your next epiphany. Although science has changed a lot over the past century, I think it’s still true that social networks play a role in scientific discoveries and opportunities.
The Quantum Labyrinth is genuinely interesting. If you want to learn more about Feynman or Wheeler, you certainly will do that here. I just think that it won’t be as smooth or straightforward a read as I wanted it to be, reading it during a long work week.