In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – by John Gribbin Book Review

TitleIn search of Schrödinger’s Cat – Quantum Physics and Reality
Author:John Gribbin
ISBN: 978-0552125555
Year: First published 1985 (this edition 2008)
Publication: Black Swan
In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, John Gribbin

With a world of now quantum computers, LED’s, post-modern parallels and a television series. All focused around strands of theoretical physics called The Big Bang Theory. I was vaguely aware of an area of physics that seemed to be intertwined with our lives that I really had no knowledge about. Having abandoned physics with the realms of magnetism, gravity and mass vs. weight at school. I had in my secondary education favoured the more readily accessible and easily applicable worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology.

Picking up In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat in a local Oxfam a while ago, I was intrigued by the prospect of learning about quantum physics. Albeit at an elementary level, and putting relatively recent discoveries regarding Higgs-boson particles into greater perspective. Perhaps my first fear of reading John Gribbin’s account of the quantum world, was that it would be far too involved and complex. Well beyond a non-scientific comprehension of physics I had. And I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the first half of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat began with a refreshment of physics right up to the level at which I studied my once favoured biology and chemistry. Taking the earliest accounts of the quantum way of thinking into account, John Gribbin begins with a foundation of classical physics that rapidly dissolves into the abyss of the quantum.

The first half of Gribbin’s work starts with the denial of classical physics as a viable and holistic explanation of the world as we can observe. From the father of classical physics Sir Isaac Newton and his Principia, devising the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Gribbin clarifies the distinction between wave and particle theories of how electrons, photons move and interact with their environment. But from here, the investigation takes a deeper level. Exploring the wave-particle duality theory that postulates that particles can behave both as waves and particles. Leading us to (at this point) a rather confused arrival at quantum physics. Rather than solely focusing on the scientific theories of quantum mechanics and physics, Gribbin formulates his explanation with the interactions between key physicists and mathematicians that lead to the development of a quantum view of the universe.

His book quickly debunks the convenient Rutherford-Bohr model (1913) of an atom, which became known later as Bohr’s atom. This is characterised in modern text books as a central nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electron rings. Much to my horror leaving behind my memory of a “secondary school atom”, Gribbin carefully leads us through conversations between Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle. Planck and his constant that governs the relationship between energy and frequency, and the Niels Bohr atom. That together formed the centre of what became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.  Along with other physicists including: Wolfgang Pauli, German mathematician and physicist Max Born, first British quantum physicist Paul Dirac and of course Albert Einstein; the short period between 1923 – 1927 saw the first relatively complete view of Quantum physics being founded, but at this stage its meaning and derivations of this theoretical melting pot were far from exhausted.

schrödingers cat, diagram

Over half way into In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, I had yet to reach an explanation of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous paradox. Involving a Geiger counter, a radioactive particle, a vile of poison and a dead and/or alive cat. Whilst heavy reading in places, Gribbin purposefully used the first half of this publication to lay down an essential foundation. Of quantum physics ahead of the more applicable and intriguing paradoxes and interpretations of the world that would inevitably come.

I have to admit I’m glad of this, and moving into the second half of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. I enjoyed thinking about paradoxes of the quantum world, including even a theory of time travel, all the more. This in my opinion made Gribbin’s work far more accessible even though I had just an elementary knowledge of physics beforehand.  The transition was made far easier taking into account the uncertainty principles already outlined, and the in between/ simultaneous nature of particles to grander leagues of theoretical thought.

models of different versions of an atom

If I were to provide an analogy of the book at this stage, I would use the graph of an exponentially increasing curve. Quickly sections discussing the nature of nanoscopic particles zoomed outward to the world around us. Permeating through all fields of science and even areas of the social sciences. Here implications resonated far more strongly with me, and helped solidify the information I had so far learnt. Taking quantum physics beyond “science” to what we frequently cite as post-modernism in the broadest sense of the term. Gribbin paints a fascinating picture of the future, which bearing in mind publication in 1985, I found quite extraordinary.

a view of quantum particles

Moving into the latter chapters of Gribbin’s work. We hear a theory of quantum physics that once again takes the concept of the quantum to a further level. I won’t spill the details here… but the more recent interpretations of the quantum universe. They feel much more at home with our understanding of science-fiction than in the publication of school text books. And given these theories, I’ve been encouraged to read further. Into the details discussed between Max Born and Einstein, and other significant publications. These formed the makeup of our current quantum understanding.

One major criticism I had of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat was how Gribbin so easily accepted the Big Bang Theory of the universe origin as fact. And as a rather generalised precursor to the development of classical and then quantum physics. Given the relative precision that we tackled quantum physics. I felt it a considerable oversight to consider the Big Bang theory as fact. We’re dealing with a high degree of uncertainty in a quantum explanation of the universe. This might be a personal bug-bear I have around this theory of the origin of the universe. Yet still it didn’t sit naturally with the succinct format I was presented with for quantum theory.

Given the short nature of the book review on such a large subject, I’ve tried to keep details of the findings and arguments made to a minimum. Please accept my apologies if you were expecting a further and more precise outline of what quantum physic is. But I can honestly recommend In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat as one the most profound works I’ve read in a long while. I cannot claim I’m now proficient with quantum theories, but Gribbin’s outline was both logical and enjoyable. It served less as an education than as an illumination of the subject. Taking into account the developments from Newton, to Bohr to Einstein and others. The quantum world is a current a conversation as ever, and understanding the beautiful complexity of this world’s order. Theories that contribute, takes the significance well beyond the contemplation of Schrödinger’s Cat.

This article was written by Magnus, from www.londonosophy.com. A site dedicated to reviews of London cultural events, books and independent films.

Flow – The psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Book Review

Title: Flow – The psychology of optimal experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
ISBN: 978-0-06-133920-251599
Year: First published 1990 (this edition 2008)
Publication: Harper Perennial Modern Classics

flow Csikszentmihalyi MihalyImagine playing your favourite video game, undertaking a challenge that uses more than 100% of your best-honed skills. Or immersing yourself in a truly stimulating social environment; this state is the reality of “living in the moment”. Or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-hay cheek-sent-me-hi) explains flow.

The psychology of optimal experience. So these experiences, or the brief moments of ephemeral euphoria can be glanced upon by many, but mastered by very few. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi explores the notion of flow as the optimal human experience. And how such an ideal could be achieved in our everyday lives. Intrigued by this prospect, I read on. When we are presented with ideas about living in the moment, or flow, as I will now refer to it, we are often quickly bombarded with self-help guides offering various remedies to the ailments of the modern age, and answers on how to return to a simpler state of life.

Through popular psychology, well-known maxims and strands of clinical psychiatry, we have become overly familiar with techniques to overcome the issues of tomorrow and the worries of the past. So it was actually very refreshing to read Flow, which was largely devoid of prescriptions. Instead drew on extensive psychological research and empirical studies that shed a new light on flow.

psychology of optimal experience

Whilst Csikszentmihalyi complied research for Flow in the late 1980’s, and published the book in 1990. His findings and illuminations are still valid, if not more relevant today than on first publication. So living in our “technological era”, we are constantly plugged into a world of real-time information. Happenings and social events occurring past, present and future. Modernity and the fabric of our lives are built around a nexus of opportunities for experiencing flow. From our involvement with employment, to time spent in our domestic environments. Yet so often this is not the case in our multi-tasking culture with its many distractions. We slip into what Csikszentmihalyi explains as psychic entropy, or subjective information that runs contrary to our intentions.

Csikszentmihalyi provides a thorough analysis of the concept of flow. First focusing on the anatomy of optimal human experience. Then investigating how flow can be achieved in each sector of individuality. From our consciousness and thoughts to how we engage with sports, music and social interactions. So what became clear through Flow was (and whilst this is a commonly approved thought), that in order to experience flow, we need to form intrinsic motivation for each of our tasks and undertakings.

Csikszentmihalyi, goes on to warn against the cancerous impact of placing a too great an emphasis on the immediate self, through egotism or narcissistic behaviours. But rather that we should involve our energies more deeply in our actions, so as to “lose ourselves”. With the ultimate result of developing the self through the wealth of experience afterwards.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow

So at times, there was a danger of Flow becoming too brief in descriptions and analogies. In an attempt to cover each area of our lives where we can achieve flow. However, Csikszentmihalyi managed to maintain a happy medium between over labouring sections with research and information. Skipping important details entirely. The result is an extremely accessible publication, one that gets to the heart of many of our 21st century issues. Taking the popularly covered Hierarchy of Needs by Abraham Maslow. Namely the construction of “self-actualisation”, and other commonly believed theories. I strongly feel there has been a miss-match between what Western society denotes we should see as optimal experience, and the reality of living in the moment.

According to Maslow (and whilst this has already been in deliberation), we can only achieve self-actualisation, or the point where we reach our full human potential. After our more basic needs for food, shelter, social interaction and self-esteem are satisfied. On the contrary, Flow argues the opposite that even in our daily interactions, our work lives, no matter how menial or complex they may be, there are ample opportunities to create and live in flow.

In our modern culture, we often adopt a post-modern approach to our lives, whereby our faith lies in our own achievements. Meritocracy governs our success, and the individual is king. We have been de-burdened from traditional pre-industrial work roles giving us “ultimate” freedom and control. Yet as Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom (1941) so succinctly argues, our modern lives have just as much potential to create chaos and psychic entropy as they do true freedom. The way we choose to spend our preciously earned free time, Csikszentmihalyi mentions, is paramount to both experiencing flow Also creating a meaningful path of flow throughout our lives.

Quoting within Flow, the American sociologist Robert Park over 80 year ago. “It is the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of (American) life occurs”. By redesigning the way we choose to spend both free time, and the methods we use to construct goals and ambitions. In work we can actively control the level of success we have in creating flow experiences.

Flow in psychology explained

Approaching Flow with a degree of scepticism, my greatest concern was that Csikszentmihalyi, whilst carefully covering each area of our lives from a psychological perspective, would in the end, reveal flow as we already know “living in the moment”, as a matter of paying more attention to the immediate time and restricting moments spent dwelling on the past or future.

I was pleased to see this was not the case. With flow taking an altogether more complex position in our lives. Where the psychology meets the philosophy and very the creation of meaning. Without revealing all the secrets of Flow for now, Csikszentmihalyi provides an excellent examination of what it takes to make the most of our lives. To truly control the consciousness of the mind without self-consciousness. And how to shape our work and domestic lives into flow activities brimming with meaning.