Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

Quantum - A Guide for the Perplexed

The first thing about this book is that you need to be careful, because the cover could cause you to go cross-eyed. But apart from that, the book is a fantastic read both for those who know a little about the topic and those who have no idea and are scared by the word “quantum” (which, to be honest, they should be).

Jim Al-Khalili takes your hand and guides you through the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics, and does so with a similar approach to that which an undergraduate might meet when they first start.

He does everything simply, clearly and with added humour; carefully introducing more and more concepts that underpin the entire field.

Later, when the reader has gained more confidence, the book moves into much more complex regions of quantum physics, including things which physics students might not have covered in much detail, yet the author still does it in a very easy to follow manner.

The entire book also has little nuggets of fact-file style pages, some written by Al-Khalili, but many written by colleagues from different universities, expanding on what has been mentioned in the main text of the book. Additionally there are amusing analogies such as the quantum diamond thief, and entertaining notes explaining to American readers that Leeds United are the best football team in the UK; all these merely add icing on top of a wonderfully yummy cake.

If you want to have a better understanding of quantum physics, or you’re a student who needs a quick explanation of the Zeeman effect because your lecturer makes no sense, then Jim Al-Khalili’s book “Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed” is perfect. Just don’t confuse it with a zebra.


Interview with Dr Chris Lintott

Chris LintottAs part of the University of St Andrews School of Physics & Astronomy’s Colloquia, Dr Chris Lintott was invited to give a lecture on the ‘Zooniverse’, the online database where anyone can take part in active scientific research into practically anything; galaxies, exoplanets, whale communication, cyclone data and tonnes more.

During the actual lecture he focussed more on the Galaxy Zoo – the project on classifying different galaxies – which when it started up caused the Harvard-based server to catch fire simply because it became ‘so darn’ popular!

Here are the highlights of my own chat with Chris, which only happened after the Head of School assisted me in tracking him down… Unfortunately you can’t see quite how tall or hear quite how loud he is in real life, from reading this. Trust me; he is!


Photo © UK Space Agency

EISF 2013 – Robin Ince’s Show & Tell

It took me 15 minutes to work out how to get into the National Museum of Scotland after hours. Turns out you have to go round the back. But there was a lovely gentleman holding the door for this lost, cold blogger so we can call it even.

Robin Ince’s Show & Tell was literally that; a variety of people standing up in front of us and telling all about the thing that fascinates them. We had everything from a 3D printed skull (a Tasmanian skull) to toothpaste and the psychology behind magic. Though technically the first show and tell was Robin standing next to his photo from the program, telling us how six years of stand-up ages you, very quickly. From there we moved on to the other speakers, including Richard Wiseman – who arrived late – and Susan Morrison from my event the night before, as well as the Director of Edinburgh Zoo (who’d originally wanted to bring panda sperm but decided it was best left where it was).

Later Robin moved onto his real show and tell, which turned out to be the guitarist David MacGregor from the band ‘Kid Canaveral’ (formed in St Andrews I might add!) though sadly, God didn’t like him for a second because his guitar strap came undone right when he started to play.

Richard Wiseman's Magic Square

Richard Wiseman might have come last, but he was by no means least… He thoroughly entertained us with his magic tricks and what happens when you do slight things wrong. Then he impressed everyone – or me at least – with his ability to cook up a magic square for a randomly chosen number provided by the audience. It’s the ultimate magic square, where adding up corners, the centre box, the four corner boxes and a whole range of other means, gets you to the number 94. 25 ways to add them up in fact.


EISF 2013 – The Great Big Science Quiz

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a quiz more than The Great Big Science Quiz, which was recorded for BBC Scotland at Teviot Row House last night.

Richard Wiseman and his contestants, Hermione Cockburn, Brooke Magnanti, Susan Morrison and Matt Parker, definitely knew their stuff. Even when they just wanted to buzz first, and hadn’t even listened to the question.

The first question was; do the buzzers work? They had some technical difficulties.

The rounds included True or False, Music, What am I?, Myth Busters, Scientists and their Discoveries, and Scientific papers. Sounds like an eclectic mix, but provided some hilarious questions, and even funnier answers. There is now a large group of people in Edinburgh who know about Michael Faraday’s party essential, irrational numbers, waxing chimps, that ovine does not mean oval (it means sheep) and that quantum mechanics involves a box-based cat.

During the Scientists and their Discoveries round, where they played a clip of the scientist and described their discovery, I was surprised no one was able to guess it was Peter Higgs. Susan thought it was the “big Hadron thing that looks a bit like a Bond villain’s lair” but no one could name the scientist. Poor Higgs…

In the end, Susan Morrison won, despite her chemistry teacher saying she would never amount to anything. Well, you proved them wrong Susan. You proved them wrong!

After which she had to dash for another gig. One where she’s allowed to swear, apparently.

They had to re-take a few snippets for the radio, as a microphone failed a few times and someone swore. And then it was the audience’s turn to be quizzed with clickers. We were considered to be a fairly knowledgeable audience, or as Matt Parker said, at least three quarters of us were.

And with that, we were released, most of us with giant grins on our faces. Probably a good excuse to do it again next year!

The Great Big Science Quiz will be on BBC Radio Scotland on Friday 29th March at 1:15pm.

Edinburgh International Science Festival 2013

Peter HiggsIt’s that time of year again, the Edinburgh International Science Festival is upon us, starting this weekend and running all the way until 7th April. There are lots of different events, events with Richard Wiseman, Marcus Chown, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Peter Higgs and many many more!