Art, Science, & Confidence Tricks: ‘Quantum Leaps’

This book is, by most respects, bad — it has no apparent thesis, no plot, and though parts are well written, nothing in the books ties together in any classical way; yet there’s something attractive in it’s affect that deserves to be respected. It’s called Quantum Leaps, which gives the impression that it’s about the physics of the movement of light, but it’s rather more about a line from one of WH Auden’s letters, a speech from the Dali Lama, getting into Harvard, and dinners and chance encounters with nobel prize winning physicists and authors.

The topic of the movement of light is indeed discussed in some way or another in every chapter, though never in detail, and sometimes just because somebody at a dinner party happened to say the word, ‘physics’. This book has no apparent thesis, which is different from saying it lacks purpose. Author Jeremy Bernstein is present in every scene, and so is the idea, though often vague, of quantum physics. This book, then, is more of a memoir than a primer on how light travels. The organization, however, is either terrible or too clever, and in either case makes the book unreadable, which is Bernstein’s point.

Quantum Leaps has no story, which sounds so odd it might be hard to believe. It has none. Each chapter has a few anecdotes, and characters, but the book put together has no beginning or middle or end except for the two covers and pages between. There is no arc. There is no narrative structure: Bernstein has no quest, nor does he reveal any comedy or tragedy of quantum physics. It can be distilled to rambling and name dropping, perhaps something written more for the author or his family.

What’s more, Bernstein has the annoying habit of starting his chapters off with quotes, sometimes two pages worth, that seem more geared to make word count than to add to the missing narrative. Quantum Leaps, then, is unlike any other book: most books, both fiction and non fiction, have structure and purpose: this book has none, except for the convention of chapters.

That this book has chapters, however, is relevant. Bernstein could have done away with chapters and headings and the book would suffer none. The quantum leaps are those leaps from topic to topic. It’s largely a memoir that highlights how Bernstein has met celebrities and nobel prize winning scientists who are interested, to some degree, in quantum physics, in how light travels. It’s unknown how light travels. The best guess, now at least, is that it’ random but broken up into phases. Each phase, called a quantum, has a probability of direction.

Despite all the research into light’s movements, predicting how it will move is still maddening and the results are little better than guessing. Such is Bernstein’s book: each underdeveloped anecdote, each underdeveloped character, each narrative dead end, is an unpredictable quantum of memoir. The front and back covers and the chapters, then, are the areas of high probability — those have to be there. The rest, just like light, is random.

How light moves, in short, is covered here (this is about as technical as the book gets):

The equation derived by Schrödinger has a solution which is a function of space and time. It [sic] you take this solution and square it, you get the probability of finding the electron [of light], say, at some place at a given time. Where the function is large the probability of finding the electron is greatest. Nothing in the theory tells you where a given electron will land; you find out only where it is likely to land.

When the lights are flicked on, light goes where it goes. Where and how are unknown. This little explanation is among the most satisfying parts of Bernstein’s book. It’s a little bit of nourishment that readers expect.

Bernstein has to provide some basic explanation for how light moves, and he has to give some entertainment — he knows he must, as a writer. Bernstein is a former science staff writer for the New Yorker, and he’s published several books with decent regard. He also has several essays in the New York Review of Books. Bernstein knows, then, how to write. His point of this book is to be a random memoir that relates around, to some degree, quantum physics. Yet he still must give readers’ something for their time. He does so with these vignettes of science wisdom.

The anecdotes in the book all relate somehow to Bernstein — he’s either the star, or just a minor role. They can sometimes be interesting, in much the same way celebrity gossip can be. The difference is, though, that reading names such as Einstein and Bohm can have a different feel than reading, say, about Snookie from Jersey Shore. That difference gives his anecdotes a greater sense of ethos. In one such case Bernstein writes:

Bohm was quite surprised when, unexpectedly, Einstein called him. Einstein told Bohm that his book was the best attempt to refute his views that he had ever seen. Einstein believed that the quantum mechanical description was not complete, while Bohm argued in his book that it was. Einstein accepted the consequences of the uncertainty principle, but thought that this and the other aspects of the theory would emerge as limits of some sort of classical theory–which he never succeeded in creating. He invited Bohm to come and visit him to discuss these matters. Exactly what happened in this discussion I have never been able to find out. I once wrote Bohm to ask him. He answered my letter but not the question.

Bernstein’s paragraph rambles on for another half a page. The ethos derived from the names is strong, though its effect is from the mysticism about the importance of these men: that somebody mentions Einstein or Bohm doesn’t make what’s said worthwhile.

This is representative of much of the book. The paragraph starts out with a phone call between Einstein and Bohm, then Bernstein mentions a letter he wrote to Bohm, then it ends with some disappointment Einstein had in Bohm. Bernstein’s one poorly developed paragraph could do better as three. But instead: it’s one; and Bernstein put himself as the physical locus of the paragraph. The brief anecdote has no purpose — it’s just words with some relation centering around Bernstein. Centering not in topic, but in geometry of the paragraph construction. Moreover, Bernstein gives the impression that he was present when Einstein called Bohm. He wasn’t. This anecdote, then, which has no purpose and should have no relationship to Bernstein, has, instead, Bernstein at the center — Bernstein at the nucleus.

But Bernstein can’t be faulted for trying to get himself into physics posterity. He derives genuine enjoyment from physics, and perhaps he feels his time at the New Yorker should have been spent at Los Alamos. Everybody is, to some degree, as Graham Greene says, a confidence artist with a bougouis exterior and an inner need to be accepted. That part of Bernstein’s acceptance in physics (which is well established — he has a PhD in physics from Harvard and taught at NYU) comes from his popular writing in no way delegitimizes Bernstein as a scientist. Nor, however, does it make him a better or more productive scientist.

Bernstein’s book is a type of art. He has taken the physics of light as known today and demonstrated them with words — not through description only, but rather by the make up of his book. This book is random and unpredictable, just as a light ray is, and it is broken into chapters and anecdotes just as light is broken into quanta. In one section Bernstein writes, “One may well wonder, if humans had not fortuitously taken over from pterodactyls, whether the collective consciousness of pterodactyls would have done the trick.” Dear reader, That is the first and only time Bernstein mentions pterodactyls, or any dinosaur, and in the paragraph just before this he was discussing Schrödinger’s cat: two distinct paragraphs, two distinct directions.

Bernstein is credited, mostly, for being able to distill difficult scientific topics into teachable and explainable forms. He has skill, then, as a scientist and as a writer. Yet Quantum Leaps is a terrible science book.

Except that it’s a great book. It’s an often boring and nonsensical read, but the risk and skill to organize it as it is deserves respect. When Bernstein puts himself in anecdotes he leaves a sense of longing. Bernstein mentions that as a freshman in college he was obsessed with how light travels. By his time as a professor and writer it doesn’t appear he got a chance to explore it as much as he perhaps would have liked. Thus here he is in Quantum Leaps, as a Graham Greene character, giving his model of quantum physics in the best way he knows how.

RATING 5 / 10