And just as Schrödinger couldn't have had any idea about what his equation would be used for, the same could be said of the laser, which now allows us to have CDs and DVDs and a lot of other things.
The same goes for the transistor. It was first developed to amplify radio signals, and you had transistor radios that replaced the vacuum tubes that were being used. Now they are also used as logic elements, 1s and 0s. If you apply a voltage to a transistor you can basically open or close a gate and allow electrons to flow through or make it very difficult for electrons to flow. And so you have two different current states, high and low, that you can call a 1 or a 0. You can combine them in clever ways to do logic operations with the 1s and 0s. You can encode information. You can develop a language of the 1s and 0s and manipulate them that way.
And again, I don't think that was the first thought of the people that developed the transistor. Look at all the things that it has brought out. There are probably more transistors in a standard hospital than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, when you think about all the computers and all the electronic devices that we use just for medical applications. So it really has transformed life in a very profound way.
The real superheroes of science are a small handful of people who knew they were changing physics, but I don't think they recognized that they were also changing the future.
One of the ways you keep this book lively and accessible is to use anecdotes from early science fiction. How well have those predictions held up?
The main problem is that they believed that there was going to be a revolution in energy, which would lead to jet packs, death rays and flying cars. But what we got was a revolution in information. This information age, of course, came about because of semiconductors and solid-state physics, which were enabled by quantum mechanics.
A lot of these things go back to transistors and semiconductors. Is that in your view the biggest fundamental leap that quantum mechanics allowed us to make?
More than that, even. By discerning what were the fundamental rules that govern how atoms interact with each other and how they interact with light, you also have now a fundamental understanding of chemistry. There is a reason why the atoms are arranged the way they are in the periodic table of the elements, and it comes out naturally from the Schrödinger equation when you add in the Pauli exclusion principle. There is a really deep appreciation for why the world is the way it is.
Can you imagine living in a world before quantum mechanics?
We take all these things for granted. It's like the Louis C. K. YouTube clip—everything is amazing and nobody is happy.
"Quantum" is thrown around a lot as a label for things we don't understand, and we often lump a number of phenomena into the vague category of "quantum weirdness". Is that something that you'd like to see dissipate?
I would. It's used too much as a catchall. Proposing weird and counterintuitive ideas to explain observations, developing the consequences of these ideas and testing them further, and then, if they conform with reality, accepting them is not unique to quantum mechanics. It's what we call physics.
Also, because it has a reputation for weirdness, quantum mechanics is used too much as a justification for things that have nothing to do with quantum mechanics. There is an expression, "quantum woo," where people take a personal philosophy, such as the power of positive thinking or let a smile be your umbrella, and somehow affix quantum mechanics to it to try to make it sound scientific.
And make a lot of money doing so.
Yeah. It kind of seems to me to be at the same level as using mathematical knot theory or topology to justify crossing your fingers when you're making a wish. It has about as much relevance and justification.