I greatly enjoyed David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics (here’s my review from 2011), so when I ran across a mention of this new book with “Quantum” in the title, I immediately sought out a copy. This sort of thing is highly relevant to my interests.
Kaiser is a professor at MIT with a joint appointment in both physics and history of science, and as you would expect this collection of essays splits time between those two fields. The book contains a handful of pieces relating to Kaiser’s work in physics, chiefly about a “cosmological” test of quantum physics, using light from distant quasars as a random number generator for a Bell’s Inequality test (I talked briefly about this idea in the context of football in 2015). There are also a larger number of pieces primarily about the historical and social context of physics, mostly in the mid-to-late 20th century. Almost all of these were previously published (I think there’s only one that doesn’t have a “A version of this previously…” note), mostly in non-technical outlets (The London Review of Books features prominently, as he had a regular gig with them for a while).
The strongest material here charts the changes in the landscape of physics after World War II: the rise and fall of physics enrollments and employment, and the rise and fall of Big Science projects like the (cancelled) Superconducting Supercollider. Some of this is familiar from Hippies, but some is new, and all together it paints a very compelling picture of how strategic decisions at the public policy level shaped the way physicists have gone about studying the universe. I would disagree a bit about some of the details— Kaiser’s physics background is in particle theory, so he’s more pro-accelerator than I am, and there’s a thread in the history of quantum that I’ll take issue with in a different post— but it’s a good story well told. This thread also includes my single favorite piece from the book, using a chance collision between topics to unpack the history of particle cosmology.
The second interesting theme in these pieces, as noted by Ash Jogalekar in his review, has to do with physics publishing. Again, part of this is recycled, but the story of Frijtof Capra’s Tao of Physics is fascinating enough that I was happy to read it again. The chapter on the writing of the (in)famous Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler was new to me, though, and really interesting.
All in all, this is a very solid work both in terms of the history and the physics discussed in it, and Kaiser is a very engaging writer. As you would expect from an actual (albeit part-time) historian, the pieces are also extensively documented with citations of the original sources (something I appreciate greatly after a lot of time spent trying to chase down the sources of colorful anecdotes that seem like good material for my own book-in-progress…). If you’re interested in (non-technical) writing about physics, and particularly about the historical context of the field, you should check it out.