As someone whose primary claim to fame is writing physics books starring a talking dog, I am obviously often on the lookout for pop-physics books that take a different slant on the subject. I ran across a couple of these recently, picking up the "serious comic on entanglement" Totally Random: Why Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics by Tanya and Jeffrey Bub before a recent cruise vacation, and getting sent a review copy of the forthcoming Anxiety and the Equation: Understanding Boltzmann's Entropy by Eric Johnson. Both of these offer somewhat non-traditional explorations of their respective subjects, in ways that have a bit more in common than their very different formats might suggest.
Anxiety and the Equation is the more conventionally unconventional of the two, if that makes sense, in that it departs from the simple explanatory format by including a serving of individual biography with the physics. This covers the life of Luwdig Boltzmann, with a particular focus on the mental issues that eventually led him to take his own life in 1906 (becoming part of a much-quoted caution to students studying statistical mechanics. While this isn't the normal approach to explaining physics, it's not all that uncommon-- in some ways, Johnson is walking a path previously laid out by books like Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man. Like Farmelo, who suggested that Paul Dirac may have been on the autism spectrum, Johnson engages in a bit of post-mortem diagnosis, suggesting that Boltzmann's well-know "neuraesthenia" would, in modern terms, be classed as an anxiety disorder. This is laid out sympathetically in a set of interspersed chapters detailing Boltzmann's struggles to navigate the academic politics of Europe in the 1800's and deal with harsh criticisms of his work from Mach and other contemporaries who found the whole project of statistical physics distasteful. Some of these chapters, which attempt to get into Boltzmann's head directly, have an almost poetic quality that's unusual to see mixed with a straight pop-science explanation. The writing in these sections is of high quality and very sympathetic to the subject, but doesn't really overcome the inherent problems of trying to assess the mental state of someone who's been dead for more than a century. The real strength of the book comes from its other half, which aims to unpack the equation for entropy, S=klogW that famously decorates Boltzmann's grave. Boltzmann's statistical understanding of entropy, while controversial during his lifetime, has had a transformational impact on the way we understand the universe. Johnson's discussion of Boltzmann's equation (which is credited to him because he came up with the key concepts, though he never explicitly wrote it in the modern form) is anchored in extremely concrete discussions of random processes involving small numbers of particles, and calculating the likelihood of each of the "microstates" of these systems. Thanks to these examples of particles hopping between positions and energy states, he is able to put together one of the clearest explanations I've seen of what entropy is in a statistical sense, and how it functions. He even explains why it makes sense for a logarithm to appear, which I had never seen before. Johnson's book is a slim volume of mostly prose, and as such does not physically resemble the Bubs' book on quantum entanglement, which is a moderately large graphic explanation. Format aside, though, the two share a crucial structural element: like Johnson's explanation of entropy, the Bubs' exploration of entanglement centers on a simple and concrete system of "quoins," quantum-entangled coins whose distribution of heads and tails when flipped follow unusual rules. Working through all of the implications of these "quoin" flips grounds an exploration of a wide range of modern quantum physics, from Bell's theorem to quantum teleportation. The structure of Totally Random is a radical departure from the usual, though, featuring asides from the author and a sort of quasi-first-person graphic presentation. It verges on hallucinatory at times, especially in surreal sequences involving versions of Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger and a sort of cackling trickster version of Hugh Everett of Many-Worlds fame. These draw heavily on the writings of the principal figures to inform the dialogue, something I recognized right off because I've read a lot of this stuff, but might just sound weird to a reader less familiar with the subject. These interludes give the whole thing a sort of impressionist feel that on the one hand makes a subject I've read maybe too many pop treatments of feel fresh, and really captures the strangeness. On the other hand, though, I'm not completely confident that it will convey all that much information to people who don't already know a bit about what they're saying. Reading as a physicist, I found it full of fun moments as I realized "Oh, they're doing this..." but absent those it might've just seemed weird. That said, the "quoin"-flipping examples are really outstanding for illustrating the key experiments involved in modern quantum physics, particularly when it gets to the later examples of applications to cryptography and teleportation. I'm not sure I'd recommend this to a total neophyte, but backing up this graphic treatment with a more traditionally wordy one (if you like dogs, have I got a recommendation for you...) might be really effective. Both of these books taught me a few things about physics and how to explain it that hadn't fully clicked before, and for that alone, I'm glad to have read them. I also appreciate their experiments with the form in which this material is presented-- it's great to see that even a hundred years after the development of statistical and quantum mechanics, physicists and physics writers are still finding new ways to talk about these fields.