The Quantum Ten

Overview

Theoretical physics is in trouble.

At least that’s the impression you’d get from reading a spate of recent books on the continued failure to resolve the 80-year-old problem of unifying the classical and quantum worlds. The seeds of this problem were sewn eighty years ago when a dramatic revolution in physics reached a climax at the 1927 Solvay conference in Brussels.

It’s the story of a rush to formalize quantum physics, the work of just a handful of men fired by ambition, philosophical conflicts and personal agendas. Sheilla Jones paints an intimate portrait of the ten key figures who wrestled with the mysteries of the new science of the quantum, along with a powerful supporting cast of famous (and not so famous) colleagues.

The Brussels conference was the first time so many of the “quantum ten” had been in the same place: Albert Einstein, the lone wolf; Niels Bohr, the obsessive but gentlemanly father figure; Max Born, the anxious hypochondriac; Werner Heisenberg, the intensely ambitious one; Wolfgang Pauli, the sharp-tongued critic with a dark side; Paul Dirac, the silent Englishman; Erwin Schrödinger, the enthusiastic womanizer; Prince Louis de Broglie, the French aristocrat; Pascual Jordan, the ardent Aryan nationalist, who was not invited; and Paul Ehrenfest, who was witness to it all.

This is the story of quantum physics that has never been told, an equation-free investigation into the turbulent development of the new science and its very fallible creators, including little-known details of the personal relationship between the deeply troubled Ehrenfest and his dear friend Albert Einstein. Jones weaves together the personal and the scientific in a heartwarming—and heartbreaking—story of the men who struggled to create quantum physics … a story of passion, tragedy, ambition and science.

Reviews

What Jones shows us in The Quantum Ten is that science doesn't progress in a straight line. It's work that can take people down some dark alleys. It can be a messy affair, both personally and scientifically. Yet, despite this — or maybe because of it — exciting discoveries are made that shape our future.

The Guelph Mercury

As a quantum physicist who made use of quantum physics throughout my research career in physics, I found that Quantum Ten by Sheila Jones provided me with new insights into this most mysterious aspect of science. I also relished the personal stories which revealed the struggles and foibles of the ten who gave us quantum theory. This was a most enjoyable read and I highly recommend it to experts and non-experts alike. It will certainly be on the reading list of my Poetry of Physics course from no on.

Robert K. Logan, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Toronto

...an ambitious story of the pioneering quantum theorists as they laboured to find the laws governing the interactions among the constituents of matter.

Winnipeg Free Press

It is not easy to weave a tale involving 10 main characters, and it takes a certain amount of mental effort to keep track of all the players. Nonetheless, Jones's narrative is remarkably focused... The Quantum Ten illuminates a neglected chapter in the history of physics, and Jones tells the story with enthusiasm and flair. Above all, she gives the reader a real feeling for the personalities behind the science, a look at the minds of 10 passionate thinkers who changed our world forever.

Globe and Mail

...Jones's discussion of the scientific landmarks of quantum physics is compelling and clear and will make the most math-phobic people feel they have mastered the most abstract theoretical concepts early 20th-century physics has to offer... Her lively narrative shows that she is not merely an engaging popular science writer but also an excellent storyteller... Jones weaves an insightful story of the friendships, dissention, fears and rivalries that marked the development of quantum physics...

Literary Review of Canada

...detailed and well-researched... Jones deftly weaves a narrative following the intersecting lives of 'the quantum ten'... the personal details are satisfying for the historic voyeur...a timely read...

University Affairs

About the Author

Sheilla Jones

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
Sheilla Jones photo

Sheilla Jones

Sheilla Jones is an award-winning Canadian journalist and former CBC news editor with an advanced degree in theoretical physics. She has tackled a number of tantalizing ideas in physics, including the implications of living in a multi-universe in the CBC documentary Infinite Possibilities: The Science of Parallel Universes. She also regularly reviews science books for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail.