The Quantum Labyrinth: A book review by Bob Morris

The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality
Paul Halpern
Basic Books (October 2017)

A brilliant analysis of two “explorers of the extraordinary possibilities in physics”

This book was written so that non-scientists such as I could at least identify with the professional rapport and the personal friendship that Richard Feynman and John Wheeler shared during their lengthy collaboration. However, only with sufficient formal education in physics and mathematics could a reader fully understand and appreciate the nature and extent of  their scientific achievements. Both were among the most highly renowned scientists in the 20th century. Their strengths and weaknesses were complementary. Wheeler and Feynman took turns being student or teacher as they explored together “extraordinary possibilities.” What they accomplished together and what each helped the other to accomplish were unprecedented.

The title of Paul Halpern’s book serves as a metaphor for how he tracks Feynman and Wheeler’s “attempt to map out and reproduce the complexity of the universe.” In a quantum labyrinth, we’re told, they “would take not just one path to the center but a multitude simultaneously. Laying down a intricate web of threads, rather than a single one, [they] would explore various alternative routes.”

[For a briefing on the quantum labyrinth, please click here.]

Halpern makes brilliant use of the labyrinth metaphor when examining Feynman’s development of the sum over histories theory. He cites relevant sources that include Jorge Luis Borges (and his short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”), novels with  hypertext (i.e. numerous possible outcomes), and Werner Eisenberg who was engaged in efforts to develop nuclear weapons for Germany during World War Two. “Through our daily rambles on the web, where each array of links is a bifurcation of alternatives, labyrinthine has become a familiar part of time.”

Eventually, as Paul Halpern explains, “Feynman brilliantly applied the same concept of a labyrinth of interacting components — subject to conservation laws and an organizing principle to guide them — to the domain of elementary particles…John Wheeler marveled at how beautifully Feynman’s sum-over-histories approach encapsulated the distillation of the gamut of quantum possibilities down to a definitive result — linking quantum and classical in an unprecedented fashion.”

To repeat, I am among those who cannot fully understand the great achievements of scientists such as Richard Feynman and John Wheeler but, thanks to books such as The Quantum Labyrinth, it is still possible for me and others to recognize so many of what Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham aptly characterize as “the unknown unknowns.” I am again reminded that the more I learn, the more I realize how little — in fact — I do know.


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