The Long View: The Rhetoric of Quantum Mechanics

Real life, alas, is not like The Sims, where reading three books about medicine is all you need to be a brain surgeon. Even so, popular science books often suggest that everyone could keep up with the latest scientific developments — from quantum physics to neuroscience — as long as they have been condensed and made comprehensible. These types of books have been in vogue since the 18th century: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is widely considered to be both a scientific treatise and a decent work of literature. However, as both knowledge and specialization increase, just how much can non-scientists learn from popular science books? How much can a book about quantum physics teach you, and how far does this resemble the quantum physics that is currently being researched by professional physicists?

Science is not only fascinating to scientists. For humanities scholars, the ways in which science is communicated provides its own field of study. I found quantum physics a particularly attractive topic because of its abstract nature, and the unimaginably small scales at which quantum phenomena operate: how can this be made both interesting and understandable? I look at the kinds of topics addressed in communicating quantum physics, their complexity, and how language is used to engage and convince the reader.
There are many different forms and genres an author can choose from when writing about quantum physics: popular science books, science fiction, works for children, and ‘scientific fantasies’.

Scientific fantasies are probably the least-known genre, straddling the border between popular science and fantasy. I call them scientific fantasies after George Gamow, who coined the term to emphasize the difference between his Mr Tompkins series and science fiction. Gamow, one of the astrophysicists who developed the Big Bang theory, wrote a popular science series in an unusual format: Mr Tompkins, a very average bank clerk, wants to learn about modern scientific developments but falls asleep at a dull public lecture. In his dreams, he encounters microscopic and macroscopic phenomena from physics, chemistry and biology at a human scale, which enables him to understand everything a lot better. A fantastic setting allows characters to observe scientific phenomena that are normally too large or small to perceive with our own eyes, or that could only exist hypothetically.

The genre includes books such as Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884) and the Science of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen: in the latter, science from ‘our world’ is looked at through the eyes of the wizards from Pratchett’s Discworld, who are absolutely baffled to observe a world that runs on rules rather than magic. Authorial intention determines when a book is a ‘scientific fantasy’ rather than science fiction: such books are written in order to teach someone about science, and the fiction aids the explanation, not the other way around. Scientific fantasies usually make this intention very clear, as the authors make a point of explaining to the reader that this is very much not science fiction, because the books are meant to be didactic. They usually do not like such associations with science fiction, as they are writing about science fact.


An illustration from Flatland, by Edwin Abbott. 

Science books for children have been around since the eighteenth century, and there is hardly a topic they have not covered — there are even children’s books about quantum mechanics, which all use the ‘scientific fantasy’ form. Early on in my research, I was very happy to discover Russell Stannard’s Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, aimed at readers aged 10+. It splendidly explains the most intriguing concept of quantum mechanics, wave-particle duality (the fact that matter and radiation behave both like particles and like waves), in a self-conscious Alice in Wonderland setting.

Shortly afterwards, I encountered an even more ambitious undertaking: Lucy and Stephen Hawking’s George series (you can read my previous article and review of these books on this website). This series, now five books long, is absolutely astonishing in the scope of topics it addresses — from Stephen Hawking’s own research, Hawking radiation and the loss of information inside a black hole, to superstring theory and cryptography. Finally, Otto Fong’s The Quantum Bunny, which he wrote as an Outreach Fellow at the National University of Singapore, uses the Chinese legend of the Monkey King’s rebellion in heaven to show how quantum physics upset the world of physics, just as it thought it had figured out how the world works. At the same time, several children’s books have made use of ideas in quantum physics without necessarily explaining the concepts behind them, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series.

An author of a book on quantum physics must make a wide range of assumptions about their audience before starting to write. Many of these assumptions are shared  among authors: although Stephen Hawking’s biographers, perhaps patronisingly, argue that Hawking made A Brief History of Time accessible to “plumbers and butchers”, this work implies a reader who is familiar with the higher education system: for instance, when he mentions how frequent a supernova explosion occurs, he speaks of having “a reasonable chance of seeing an explosion before your research grant ran out.”

This attitude is unfortunately common in popular science books. Take, for instance, Schrödinger’s cat. Many popular quantum physics books display or mention the cat on their cover: something about a cat is assumed to be familiar. Readers are expected to have heard somewhere that cats have something to do with quantum physics. Perhaps they might even have heard something about this cat being alive and dead at the same time…

This, however, is as far as the authors go in their assumptions about the reader’s knowledge. All popular books on quantum physics that discuss Schrödinger’s cat explain the thought experiment from a to z: a cat is kept in a box with a vial of poison gas, and this vial will break or not depending on whether one particle randomly decays or not — so from the outside, there is no way of telling, or predicting, whether the cat is alive or dead. You have to check, to observe. The reader is kept from feeling embarrassed, or stupid, for not knowing precisely what cats have to do with quantum physics.

Writers use this very basic assumed general knowledge to keep the readers interested, though: none of the books immediately explains exactly what the cat paradox entails, but they give hints throughout the book that the answers are about to follow. John Gribbin, for instance, writes in In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: “But first, for completeness, we ought to look at some of the other paradoxical possibilities inherent to the quantum rules […] and, at last, Schrödinger’s famous half-dead cat.” Conversely, if a reader had never heard of this cat stuff at all before, such a hint could be counterproductive to the author’s goals: embarrassed at their ignorance, such readers might turn away from the book.

In university-level textbooks, on the other hand, the cat is not used in this way. Many do not even discuss the cat at all; if they do, they relegate it to a paragraph in the final chapter. By giving the reader the hint of something familiar, the authors of popular science books in fact stray away from what is considered the essence of quantum physics for scientists and scientists-to-be.

One problem with writing about science as cutting-edge as quantum physics is the fact that there are many things we simply do not know yet. Different interpretations abound; some are inherently unproveable, such as string theory, and some are being investigated with increasing precision as knowledge and equipment improve. One area of contestation is the interpretation of quantum mechanics. What exactly happens when Schrödinger’s cat is inside its box, unobservable from the outside? Is it dead and alive at the same time, in a state which will only resolve itself when you look? That’s called the Copenhagen interpretation. Or does the universe split, creating two worlds, one in which the cat is alive, and one in which it is dead? That is called the Everett, or many-worlds, interpretation.

When interpretations differ, scientists clash — and in many fields, they do so most visibly in popular science books. Some of the most fascinating, and extremely personal, clashes happen in an astrophysics field that swerves into quantum territory: black holes. From an arts perspective, the most beautiful example of mud-slinging among astrophysicists is the aforementioned George Gamow, who wrote a three-song opera  defending the Big Bang and deriding Fred Hoyle’s idea of an unchanging ‘steady-state’ universe. The opera, including sheet music, was included in Mr Tompkins in Paperback. Regretfully, no recordings of the Cosmic Opera seem to be in existence yet, despite the success of physics-themed songs such as the Large Hadron Rap.

Authors have also chosen sides regarding the quantum physics interpretations, sometimes not even discussing the interpretation they disagree with: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe is so strongly in favour of the Everett interpretation that the Copenhagen one is never mentioned at all. Even Schrödinger’s cat is left out: though it was originally invented as a criticism of the Copenhagen interpretation, you would be acknowledging the existence of this interpretation by mentioning the cat… Conversely, textbooks such as James Binney and David Skinner’s The Physics of Quantum Mechanics and Alastair Rae’s Quantum Mechanics adhere to the Copenhagen interpretation, and again, if they mention the other interpretations at all, it is as an afterthought in the concluding chapter.

Both interpretations create fascinating opportunities for storytelling, regardless of which one (if either) might be real. However, it is the Everett interpretation which has inspired the largest number of stories. The idea of travelling to other worlds is an age-old narrative trope, from the descent of Aeneas and Orpheus into the underworld, to the Pevensies climbing into a wardrobe to reach Narnia. The idea that there might be a scientific underpinning to such travels has captivated authors and inspired children’s books, science fiction and ‘mainstream’ literature alike.

In science fiction, applications of the Everett interpretation can generally be divided into two kinds.  Some works simply use it as a way of explaining time travel, after which the novel itself is really about the protagonists’ shenanigans in that other time (one example is Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which is set in medieval France). Other, more interesting works have a narrative that is made possible only because of quantum mechanics. In Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, for instance, a Cold War United States invades a parallel world in which Russia has been defeated by China. By traveling through this world, and then popping back into their own world when they reach Russia, they can nuke Russia from the inside. The Everett interpretation works so well in science fiction that there are works which actually seem to anticipate it: Andre Norton posits a ‘possibility worlds theory’ in her 1956 novel The Crossroads of Time. Everett published his paper in 1957.

At first sight, Philip Pullman also seems to have used the Everett interpretation only as a metaphor in His Dark Materials, one of many possible explanations he could have used to create the parallel worlds of Will’s everyday Oxford and Lyra’s steampunk parallel world, populated with daemons. However, science is given a central place in Pullman’s trilogy — just like religion, the institution most literary criticism focuses on when discussing these works. Pullman brings together the institutions of science and religion in his trilogy to expose the flaws, but also the potential, of both, thus making quantum physics a key element in his story.

The topics most quantum physics researchers are currently working on, such as superconductivity, quantum optics and quantum computing, are still taking their time to also get taken up in popular science writing. Quantum physics, as it is communicated to non-experts, is markedly different from the subject as it is taught to physicists. Where some encourage these changes or at least grudgingly submit to their existence, others fiercely oppose them. This is nothing new in modern physics: in 1935, G.K. Chesterton lamented, “When we hear one particular word such as Relativity repeated about a hundred times a week, […] we may deduce with almost practical certainty that nobody who is using the word has any notion of what it means.” Similarly, the difference between popular physics books and university-level textbooks today can have a significant influence on the understanding of what quantum physics is: books on astrophysics, for instance, tend to stay much closer to the undergraduate syllabus.

The attraction for writers is that the implications of quantum physics, the extrapolation of the concepts, offers the richest source of stories, and therefore the most engaging topics for the reader. It is an extremely complex topic and the mathematics are gruelling, but quantum physics can open up new narrative possibilities, as it can broaden the worlds in which stories are set — to infinity, and beyond.

Kanta Dihal

Kanta is currently in the third year of her doctoral research in English Literature at Oxford University, with a focus on writings about modern physics. Her literary interests include popular science writing, science fiction, fantasy, and (post)modern literature. You can find her other work at, and she is also on Twitter @mskanta.

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