Monday, August 23, 2010

Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer

This book explores how quantum theory, mainly electron bonding orbitals, explain larger scale phenomena like colour, conductivity, green house gases and fats. Unfortunately, it reads like a simplified (but not that simple) textbook, with figures and various equations, and it is often a long way to go to get to the explanation provided. Consequently, if the detailed (but still simplified) information itself is not satisfying to you, it is likely you won’t be satisfied about the book in general. An example would be the examination of colour. If you already know that the colour of an object is largely a result of the fact that that object absorbs and reflects certain wavelengths of light, and the wavelengths that are reflected and then hit your eye are what indicate the colour of the object, then you might not get much out of knowing that the energy (wavelengths) that are absorbed and emitted can only occur in discrete amounts because of quantum theory and how electrons exist in certain (probabilistic) orbitals.* Basically, if you really want to know more about the last part of the sentence, then give this book a try.
It isn’t quite the book I wanted, so it isn’t quite fair to criticize Absolutely Small for being what it is. I wanted a greater exploration of quantum theory, challenges to the Copenhagen interpretation, a good explain of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle and some examination of entanglement (perhaps Physics and Philosophy will do it). Absolutely Small did give me a better understanding of Heisenberg and made me realize just how much of quantum theory relates to chemistry (with memories of what I did in the last years of high school). Additionally, I really did like the molecular description of fats, and to learn (or be reminded of) details about conductivity, black body radiation and wavepackets.
I do appreciate having another level of explanation filled in about why things are the way they are, but it wasn’t an easy read, nor as applicable as I’d hoped.
*There are philosophical issues about exactly what colour is and what is being seen. See Dennett's Consciousness Explained for more detail.


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