Totally Random

This is a popular science book explaining quantum mechanics (QM), in particular the key element called entanglement, which is surprisingly conceived as a graphical comic. The graphics are in greyscale (but mostly black) and almost all are either collages of drawings and real pictures, or just plain text.

The book has three parts. The first one brings the essential concept of entanglement to the reader, but without any mathematics. The main instrument is a kind of toaster (the Super Quantum Entangler PR01) that is used throughout the book. Two coins can be inserted in parallel slits and the toaster ejects the two coins landing head or tails as if they were entangled like the spins of entangled photons are. This is actually Bell's theorem stating the dependence of the quantum states of entangled particles. This 'curious correlation' of 3/4 is an upper bound for a kind of instantaneous non-local communication that cannot be explained by classical mechanics, and which Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'. This is expressed here as an operating scheme of the toaster that will result in the landing of the two tossed (or toasted) coins to end up with a different face (tails-heads or heads-tails) if both are tossed starting heads up. For all other initial conditions, the two coins will land with equal face up (heads-heads or tails-tails). Thus the tossed coins land with different faces up in three quarters of the cases. This correlation can not be explained by randomness if the two coins are uncorrelated, and neither can it be explained by rigging the coins. These entangled coins are called quoins in the book. The authors take their time and quite a number of pages to imprint the concept of quoins on the reader. The off-line characters here are the authors Jeffrey Bub (a physicist at the University of Maryland) explaining this to his daughter Tanya (who attended Art School and develops websites). They initiate the discussion, but the narrator does the explanation, and the reader (we see only the hands) does the tossing.

The `spooky action at a distance' brings us to Einstein and part 2 in which the main characters of last century's QM debaters are explaining their vision on how it should be interpreted. Einstein is the first and next comes Schrödinger and his cat in the box with a theory that the state describes the whole past and future (the wave function, a term not used here). The wave function collapsing by our observation means that what we measure is different from what the real state actually is if not observed: a mixture of all possible states. Enters Hugh Everett with a universal splitter: All outcomes of a measurement do exist, but in different universes. Since we cannot probe another universe, this is impossible to verify. The Pauli effect (critical equipment tends to fail when someone is present) kills Everett. So Pauli and a private eye (von Neumann) appear to investigating what went wrong. The culprit is the witness who consciously observed the outcome of the coin toss that made the state collapse. The whole bunch ends up in the consultation room of doctor (Niels) Bohr where they investigate the causality involved (which quoin defines the outcome of the other?), but since time is relative, causality becomes difficult to define. There is a pun here because (David) Bohm (who defended the hidden variables theory) is mentioned among the characters, but he seems not to appear in the story. He has hidden himself, disguised in the form of the Einstein character who plays a double-role.

The third part takes on a more comic kind of style with invented characters and situations. It is about what applications one could think of if we had these quoins, in other words, what are the (practical) applications of QM? The first application is about quantum cryptography. It is presented as if the classical characters Alice and Bob want to escape from some room where the outcome of a toss from one side of the room must be passed to another side. However, every information crossing can be observer by E.V.E., an eavesdropper in the form of a sphinx that sends an all intercepting beam dividing the two parts of the room.
Quantum computing is illustrated by animals (chickens and foxes dressed as humans) who are gambling in a casino.
The last application is about teleportation, at least teleporting Spock's soul, leading to the dissociation of everything in a whirling cloud of particles, referring the reader to page 1.

If we make abstraction of the QM content, it is also interesting as a comic book. The scenario is witty and has some nice findings like involving the reader as one of the characters. At some point, the reader is sucked inside the story. The scientists sitting in a van with the unconscious Everett, directly address the reader asking to come inside and close the door of the van so that they can bring Everett to doctor Bohr. Another fun element are the dog-eared graphics showing comments of the Bubs with grumpy critique on how the story develops. Most of the graphics combine a collage of pictures with minimal drawing interventions. Sometimes what is being discussed is illustrated with pictures of (the first page of) the actual historic publications in a scientific journal. I guess that to obfuscate the unwanted artefacts from the collage, the graphics are a bit fuzzy and dark-ish. Since there is a lot of explanation to do, there are also frames that are just white text in a black window. Some of the better graphics are in the third part and in the apotheosis.

This is an interesting experiment. Quantum mechanics is not easy to grasp. What the book somehow makes clear is what entanglement really means, or in this case how quoins (entangled coins) actually behave. The historical discussions by the physicists are reflecting the different opinions that they represent but it has to remain necessarily superficial. I guess that a complete layman can fully understand the discussions they have here in this book, but if not everything is clear, it could of course be an incentive to read more about this. For example with the guidance of a teacher who is using this book as a guideline. There is an appendix with notes, some of which refer to the literature, and there is also a website for the book which has some extra material but (at the time of writing this review) it is more a brief summary, serving as teasers to buy the book, rather than adding extra new material. In my opinion, the third part is the most interesting one since it illustrates the power of what could be done with QM. That should be easy to understand once the result of part 1 is accepted.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a graphical version of a popular science book, which has a lot of humour, but its serious purpose is to explain what makes quantum mechanics (QM) so unearthly and how it relates (or not) to reality. In particular the focus is on entanglement, which makes QM so difficult to understand, but, if entanglement is accepted, it also allows to illustrate the miracles QM is capable of.

Author:  Publisher: 
978-0-691-17695-6 (pbk)
22.95 USD (pbk)