Not a page turner for sure, but I bought this book for a reason. It was written in a time when Quantum Mechanics was unfolding, and frontiers on reality were being breached. This was the early 1920’s. And who best to turn to then Neils Bohr, effectively the father of Quantum Mechanics.
Yet, I was not searching for anything scientific, but rather something different, something else that Neils was known for; his controversial side.
The book is very much a deep-dive analysis on a technical level, equations abound, needless to say well beyond my comprehension. But, there were a few glittering diamonds throughout, notions that were counter to the hyper-science he was spear-heading. These are what I had hoped for.
Neils had the ability to see both sides of the coin; one side, the formal and stringent philosophy of science, the other, the quiet and mysterious metaphysics. Flipping through the book, if you followed the string of math equations long enough, they would end up at a conclusion, a conclusion as dry as what led to it, but if you read carefully there was something that glimmered. Something brief and strategically placed, something to temper all that was said. It was subtle to say the least.
Before getting to those, let’s get on bearing on what’s going here:
The work Neils Bohr did on the structure of the atom was nothing less than the reason we have the technical age we live in. Everything from laser beams to Quantum Computing unfolded because of this man’s genius. Yet, his name (I would guess) is not a household one, not like Albert Einstein. But it should be.
Essentially Neils Bohr demonstrated that around each atomic nucleus there were several levels of concentric shells (energy levels) filled with electrons. As electrons moved between these shells, absorbing and radiating energy, the atom’s state would change as well. To manipulate the behaviour of this, is basically the foundation for the advancement of technology in the 20th century.
Yet scattered through his vast and penetrating technical considerations, there was a side to Neils that put the all the science in its place. You see, Quantum Mechanics was a departure from hundreds of years of classical physics. It was a paradigm shift that shook the world. And much like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity gave a new vista to see the grand universe, the quantum did the same, instead on micro-scales.
We know reality based its physical properties, we are built to keenly aware of objects in space, but this intuition is all but gone on atomic scales. The micro world has no correlation to how we know reality. For instance, if we consider parts of the atom as being physical, “electrons in orbit around a nucleus”, then they should obey the same laws as planets around a sun, but they do not. Classical physics, as it is for us, has no place at the ground of being. And so, a new age began.
Bohr once famously remarked, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory doesn’t understand it.” He also went on to say, “If all this is true, then it means the end of physics.”
What Bohr discovered was that electrons could exist in several places at once, they could also be a particle one minute, or be like a wave the next. In fact, before measurement, a particle could be a number of mutually exclusive states simultaneously.
Bohr was not alone on this. Other physicists using his model discovered radical ideas that would twist one’s view of reality, ie. Heisenberg would go on to show that measuring the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time was impossible. Specialized math’s would be needed to calculate such ambiguities, and so Heisenberg introduced “matrix mechanics” in order to gain a computation foot-hold on what was going on.
Erwin Schrodinger proposed a theory that an electron was not a particle but a wave-function that spread through space. Shockingly, both Schrodinger and Heisenberg ended up being correct, and that each method could be used interchangeably. This basically had that electron as being a particle and wave at the same time.
For Bohr, the reconciliation of this contradiction had him introduce the concept of Complementarity. This was a departure from science however, which became controversial. This was Neils trying to explain that science worked on one level, but reality always was always more. This challenged the philosophy of physics, by undermining that notion that the universe is entirely knowable. This put limitations of whatever laws or set of properties that science wished deem as absolute.
Einstein did not care for Bohr’s Complementarity either, and became one of Bohr’s biggest critics. For Einstein, the universe was deterministic, and the odd uncertainty that quantum mechanics was demonstrating was surely an indication of something wrong.
Atomic science went on however. And Neils Bohr arguably had some of the biggest contributions to that science, but he always kept metaphysics close by in his thoughts, tempering the science he developed. And would express it when he could, and this book is a small example of that.
Here then are a few pages showing hints of that philosophy, all the way back in 1922:
A – Here Bohr is devaluing the words ‘explanation’ and ‘well-defined’, in light of the ‘mysteries’ and ‘peculiar charm’ of atomic physics
B – He is being very careful here not to trigger his scientific audience, softly introducing his metaphysics with words like ‘appear possible’ and ‘view which suggests”, “a rational generalization of our ordinary conceptions’— this is the qualifier to the hard science, his metaphysical back-door that is always a fixture in his thoughts.
C – Not a strong finish to my premise here, but again, Bohr is acknowledging the ‘inner consistency’ of the science, while also mentioning the ‘incomplete character’; I believe he wanted to say more here, but left the reader to see between the lines.