Through two doors at once

I have really enjoyed Anil Ananthaswamy’s latest book: Through two doors at once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality. It is very well written and one reads through it like a novel. But, most importantly, it gets the physics right, and the subtleties are not washed away with metaphors. Accurate and captivating, the book strikes a balance rarely reached in popular science books.

The foundations of quantum mechanics is a difficult branch of physics, and almost every narrative shortcut that was invented to convey its subtlety is, strictly speaking, a bit wrong. Further, foundations is an unfinished branch of physics: different group of experts disagree about what the main message of quantum mechanics is and what should be done to make progress in understanding. This makes it hard to popularize the subject without writing incorrect platitudes or pushing one orthodoxy.

Anil’s strategy is to use the simplest experiment illustrating quantum phenomena: the double slit experiment. He discusses the results and shows why they are so counter-intuitive. However, the simple double slit experiment is not enough to go to the bottom of the mystery. Anil thus very progressively refines the experimental setup to gradually add the subtleties that prevent naive stories from explaining away the weirdness of quantum theory. As in a police investigation, Anil interviews the experts of the main interpretations of quantum mechanics, and guides the reader through the explanations they give for each setup. The reader can then decide for herself which story she finds most appealing.

Crucially, I think the different interpretations are presented fairly. Anil does not take a side. I personally much prefer “non-romantic and realist” interpretations of quantum theory: I find accounts of the world where stuff simply moves, be it with non-local laws of motion, far more convincing than alternatives (where there are infinitely many worlds, or where “reality” has a subjective nature). The “realist” view is well represented in the book (which is rare, because it is not “hype”), but I was not annoyed by the thorough discussion of the other possibilities. More radical proponents of one or the other interpretation may however be annoyed by this attempted neutrality.

amazon_coverAnil’s writing style is very enjoyable. He does not make the all too common mistake of using cheap metaphors which are dangerous in the context of quantum mechanics where they provide a deceiving impression of depth and understanding. In this book, you actually learn something. Sure you do not become an expert in foundations, but you get an accurate sense of what motivates researchers in the field. This is both nice in itself, and if you want to keep on digging with a more specialized book. Even though I already knew the technical content of the book, I found the inquiry captivating. I definitely recommend Through two doors at once, especially to my friends and family who want to quickly yet genuinely understand the sorts of questions that drive me.

Disclaimer: I have provided minor help for the rereading of an almost finished draft of the book.

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