What’s the first thing you think about in the morning? Do you picture interference patterns as you wait for the kettle to boil, or ponder the photoelectric effect as you go for a run? It’s unlikely that quantum mechanics is on your mind, but in his latest book Breakfast with Einstein: the Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects, author Chad Orzel makes an excellent case for why it should be, as he explains the “exotic” and “abstract” quantum origins of the seemingly mundane things we do each morning.
When it came to popular-physics books in 2018, quantum was the flavour of the year. Indeed, our book of the year was Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird, which dealt beautifully with some of the fundamental interpretations of quantum mechanics. Another currently popular genre is “everyday physics”, where authors show how much science is part and parcel of our daily lives. Notable examples include Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup and James Kakalios’ The Physics of Everyday Things. With Breakfast with Einstein, Orzel deftly combines the two, using a familiar morning routine to explain a variety of quantum phenomena and the historical context behind them. The book opens with Orzel describing his own typical morning: setting the kettle to boil on his induction hob; rooting through his fridge for breakfast, subtly mentioning his children’s artworks on the fridge door, held up by magnets; popping some bread into his toaster; and, of course, checking his social-media accounts and e-mail as he waits for his tea to cool. As you read this page-long description, you may be forgiven for thinking that the author has gone into too much detail, but worry not – each small feature is a jumping-off point for a different chapter. An associate professor of physics at Union College, New York, Orzel is a blogger, science writer and author of a number of popular-physics titles including his bestseller How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog. Over the years, Orzel has developed a light and breezy writing style that makes for easy reading – a particularly useful trait while trying to explain that the sensor in a modern mobile-phone camera is, at a fundamental level, quantum mechanical, as it relies on the particle nature of light. The first chapter opens with sunrise, or more accurately, light – an apt beginning for both a quantum primer and the morning. Orzel uses this as a launchpad to talk about the Standard Model of particle physics, powering through gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces – a somewhat tougher start than I expected, but a good set-up for the rest of the book. In my favourite chapter, “The heating element: Planck’s desperate trick”, Orzel talks about the red glow of the heating element on his stove-top, or the coil in his toaster, to explain thermal radiation and the colour of light emitted by a hot object. Orzel goes into the history of one of the major conundrums that physicists in the late-1800s were dealing with – why all objects of different materials, heated to some temperature, glow that particular shade of red. At this stage, physicists were still trying to work out the intricacies of the spectrum of light, and they did not know why the light emitted by an object is independent of its composition. The author provides an excellent history and explanation of how Max Planck introduced his “quantum hypothesis” of light, suggesting that it could only be emitted in discrete chunks of energy, or “quanta”, that depend on the frequency of light, multiplied by a universal constant. This was truly the birth of quantum mechanics and I enjoyed Orzel’s succinct explanation, as well as the historical perspective. In later chapters, Orzel uses the simple act of turning off his alarm clock to quickly delve into a history of time keeping, before talking about ever-more-accurate atomic clocks, which he describes as “deeply rooted in the quantum physics of atoms”. He looks in detail at radioactivity and quantum tunnelling by beginning with a smoke detector, and uses e-mails from his students to discuss encryption and quantum superposition. However, further into the book, he talks less about the everyday, apart from a few sentences at the start of each chapter. Instead, he gets more into the hardcore physics, which is a slight disappointment. Despite this criticism, Breakfast with Einstein is charming and enjoyable. Orzel has tried to keep things simple and while lay readers may struggle with some sections, I assure them it is worthwhile. Professional physicists, conversely, may find some parts too basic but I still recommend this book to them as a lesson in how to explain your research to a general audience. Poised on the brink of a new quantum revolution, it is time that everyone realizes how much quantum physics is a part of our existence, despite its seeming strangeness. And if anything can take the “exotic” out of quantum mechanics, surely it’s tea and toast. 2018 Oneworld Publications £12.99pb 288pp