Dance of the Photons by Anton Zeilinger

I hadn’t heard anything about Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation before it turned up in my mailbox, courtesy of some kind publicist at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, otherwise I would’ve been eagerly anticipating it. Anton Zeilinger is a name to conjure with in quantum optics, having built an impressive career out of doing laboratory demonstrations of weird quantum phenomena. He shared the Wolf Prize earlier this year with John Clauser and Alain Aspect, and the three of them are in a small set of people who probably ought to get a Nobel at some point in the near future for work on quantum foundations. A book on entanglement and quantum optics by Zeilinger is something to look forward to.

Of course, there’s always some risk involved in a popular book by a Big Name, and the fact that this was originally published in German five years ago might seem like cause for concern. I’m happy to report, though, that it’s a charming and highly readable account of some of the weirdest ideas known to physics, and more importantly how we know that they’re true.

The structure is a little unusual, as it mixes sections that are pure authorial explanation with some narrative thought experiments involving imaginary physics undergrads named Alice and Bob (naturally) who get involved in some quantum optics experiments being carried out by Professor Quantinger. The Alice and Bob sections are more or less confined to the middle third of the book, which makes me wonder if there was supposed to be a section break or something, that got removed when the book was translated.

The Alice and Bob stuff is the sort of thing that could be fatally cutesy, but it ends up being very effective, mostly because it’s so detailed. In the story, Alice and Bob are walked through a Bell Inequality experiment, without being told in advance what it is, and the story gives a very realistic description of how such an experiment works, down to detector efficiencies and random scatter in the data. It’s set up so that our protagonists first observe a strange quantum effect, and then have to figure out what they’re seeing, which works better than having the effects described and then observed would. The tone throughout these sections is very light, and the charming descriptions are accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations, done in chalk on Boltzmann’s blackboard, then photographed, which is kind of neat.

After the Alice and Bob plotline ends, there follow a bunch of short chapters going through the many other fascinating quantum phenomena that have been investigated in Zeilinger’s group over the years. It’s an impressive list, and they’re all explained quickly and clearly, without excessive hype. There’s also some very realistic discussion of future quantum technology– including a sizable section on why quantum teleportation is never going to lead to a Star Trek transporter– and what the results mean for our understanding of the universe.

This is a thoroughly charming book, and a great introduction to some of the coolest experiments ever done in physics. If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend it.

(As an aside, I spent a little while trying to figure out why this book worked so much better for me than Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages did, even though it does many of the same things that I found grating in her book. I’m still not sure, but I think it’s a combination of better execution– the fictional science bits are more coherent and grounded, and the personal stuff is more focussed and feels less like name-dropping– and the subject matter, which is much more interesting to me. I’m still thinking about it, though, because if I can figure out why one worked and the other didn’t, it might help me avoid similar pitfalls in my own book.)

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