M. Beller, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. xv+365, ISBN 0-226-04182-4; Price: $20.00 (pbk).

Mara Beller, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has devoted several works to various aspects of the history of quantum mechanics; this book synthesises her findings. Two main threads are apparent in this book, each addressing a rather different audience, although the two threads emerge from the same case studies: A) a revisionist history of quantum mechanics, which would be of the greatest interest to any physicist who ever felt baffled by quantum mechanics; B) a new approach to the history of ideas, or to philosophy of science or epistemology, which would be more of interest to philosophers or historians of science.

A) Revisionist history of quantum mechanics.

In the author's analysis, the historical account of the development of three concepts of quantum mechanics is in need of major revision: the emergence of matrix mechanics; the notion of quantum uncertainty; and Bohr's principle of complementarity. In a similar vein, the author argues that the received wisdom about the development and acceptance of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is flawed. According to Beller's analysis, Heisenberg's opposition to Schrodinger's wave mechanics was not primarily physical, but sociological: Heisenberg did draw some insights from Schrodinger's works, and was originally sympathetic, but became virulently critical of wave mechanics when it threatened to overshadow his own matrix mechanics (Chapter 2 to Chapter 5). Heisenberg's desire to achieve preeminence recurs throughout the book (e.g., pp. 70-71, 195).

Bohr's principle of complementarity is scrutinised thoroughly (Chapters 6 and 11). The author's conclusion is that the principle was never clearly stated by Bohr, was used inconsistently, and was applied in areas (like psychology) where it was unlikely to represent more than a clumsy metaphor.

While the book is not intended to be a critical biography of Niels Bohr, it could certainly fulfill the role. Nearly four pages of the bibliography are filled with references to Bohr publications, and Bohr's scientific work is discussed in no less than 8 chapters (from Chapter 6 to Chapter 13). Mara Beller does not shy from pointing out Bohr's conceptual about-faces, rhetorical strategies, and scientific shallowness. In contrast to most scholars and nearly all physicists, she refuses to ascribe to her intellectual limitations her difficulty in grasping Bohr's thought. In her opinion, if Bohr's physical and philosophal views appear contradictory, it is not because of their subtlety, but because they are poorly conceived (Chapter 12). In particular, in the Einstein-Bohr exchange on the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, the author is very critical of Bohr's argumentation, which is described as deceitful (Chapter 7).

Mara Beller asserts that the 'triumph of the Copenhagen interpretation' has less to do with its explanatory power than with the success of the Copenhagen school in enforcing orthodoxy among the vast majority of physicists. Furthermore, the traditionally accepted history of quantum mechanics is presented as an instance of 'Whiggish history' (history written by the winner). These points are developed in particular in Chapters 9 and 10.

B) New approach to the history of ideas.

As a historian and philosopher of science, Mara Beller is trying to discover how scientific progress takes place. Several prominent scholars have proposed approaches on this topic, most notably Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and more recently the social constructivists. Dissatisfied with these, and particularly with Kuhn's approach (Chapter 14), she proposes instead the dialogical approach, discussed in Chapters 1 and 15. Although the discussion is lucid, the present reviewer was left with the impression that, in the end, adoption of a scientific model in the dialogical approach is a matter of taste. (This potential weakness may well disappear once the approach has had a chance to mature.)

The central chapters of this book are certainly worth reading for any physicist with an interest in quantum mechanics. In particular, students struggling with the Copenhagen interpretation might find Chapters 9 to 13 (or any subset of these) to be quite an eye opener.

Claude Plante
Ottawa, Ontario

Close Popup