library of science, geometry and astronomy

Scientists do not work in a vacuum, even—I can’t help punning—physicists who experiment in a vacuum regularly.

It’s easy to imagine hard science as being unmarred by the messiness of the humanities, but scientists are only human. In his book about quantum physics in the twentieth century, What Is Real?, Adam Becker tells a historical saga about how politics, war, personalities, and philosophy has affected the ways in which prominent scientists lived, worked, and thought.

Thus the charismatic Danish physicist Niels Bohr influenced what physicists believed about the quantum world for decades, just by dint of personality and institutional position.

Thus Albert Einstein and many other physicists fled from Europe to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s due to the rise of the Nazis. As a result of World War II and its aftermath, the center of quantum physics shifted from Europe to the U.S. This change in location, culture, and political milieu affected physicists’ work in terms of available jobs, funding opportunities, politics and the blacklisting of communists, and in-vogue philosophies.

Thus a young physicist named Hugh Everett III came up with an extremely original idea—the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics—but devoted most of his life not to theory, but to worldly pursuits more fitting to the times.

Most of all, Becker illuminates how the “Copenhagen interpretation” went virtually unchallenged for decades (though Einstein was a notable dissenter) due to accidents of history and culture. He notes,

“All of science is vulnerable to human biases and to influences from all the other spheres of human endeavor—politics, history, culture, economics, art—that some of those biases spring from.”

It makes one wonder: what are today’s unseen biases, and how are they skewing our modern worldview?