The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder (Vintage Books, 2008)
Quantum entanglement is weird. Of all the weird aspects of quantum mechanics, it’s the weirdest. The fact that what you do to one particle can affect another particle with no physical interaction between them–“spooky action at a distance,” in Einstein’s words–is a fact of nature, but just because something is proven by every experiment we throw at it doesn’t mean we have any idea why.
In The Age of Entanglement, Gilder explores the foundations of quantum mechanics with a particular focus on how entanglement was interpreted, ignored, and accepted over the course of the twentieth century. It isn’t a thorough history of quantum physics, as it’s rather arbitrary about which fundamental ideas and experiments it bothers to explain, so parts might be hard to follow without some prior knowledge. (If it’s a straightforward history of quantum physics you want, Quantum by Manjit Kumar (Norton, 2010) is a very good one.)
In the summer of 1269, the southern Italian city of Lucera was under siege, and in the army outside the city walls a man was writing a letter.
Decades earlier, in the first half of the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had expelled approximately 20,000 Muslim inhabitants from Sicily in an attempt to quell religious unrest on the island. The uprooted Muslim communities resettled in southern mainland Italy, and many of them ended up in Lucera. After the forced resettlement, Frederick II made what he probably believed was a very fair deal with his displaced subjects: they were permitted to practice their religion in exchange for taxes, military service, and support against the his enemies.
One of my favorite games to play while studying the history of science is to match the ideas and rhetoric of openly anti-science modern public figures to the era of history in which they and their ideas would feel most at home.
I think if we really set our minds to it, and we invent time travel, we can find a place in history for even the most temporally-displaced persons. That way, when we find ourselves thinking, “Why, his ideas are positively medieval, does he even know what year it is?” we need not concern ourselves with the lengthy and painful process of bringing a medieval thinker into the modern era. We only need to identify which century would be a more suitable home, and send him there.
But first we need to invent a time machine.
Until we can do that, I have to admit I find medieval views on science only fascinating in the historical writings of actual medieval scholars, and not in modern politics and educational policies. But it is medieval scholars I have been reading about lately:
Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Vintage Books, 2009)
In most narratives of the history of science in the western world, there’s an awkward gap of about a thousand years between the Greek philosophers of antiquity and the western European scholars of the sixteenth century onward. There was, of course, no such gap in reality, and humans certainly did not stop making scientific progress during those centuries.