Review of Totally Random
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018
272 pp., illus. 254 b/w. Paper, $US22.95
The intersection of science, art, technology, and humanities prompts interesting opportunities. Totally Random: Why Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics (A Serious Comic on Entanglement), is an example. This graphic novel by Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub is, as its sub-subtitle proclaims, targeted to serious readers who want to know more about quantum mechanics and its central mystery—entanglement, what it is, what it means, and what can be done with it.
Entanglement involves a pair of curiously connected sub-atomic particles. Observe and measure two entangled particles separately and the outcomes are random. But, compare the outcomes and the two particles seem to instantly influence one another, even if they are light years apart. Totally Random unpacks entanglement and provides a glimpse of our world that is different from the way it seems. For example, teleportation. Quantum theory suggests that information about a quantum state can be transmitted between entangled particles. Practical application suggests this is true. Further thinking imagines dematerializing an object in one place and dematerializing it at another place by sending information about its state. Popular television and movies have demonstrated how this might work. We are not there yet, but imagine what this might mean for your travels.
With humor in both its text and graphical narrative(s), Totally Random explores features of quantum theory associated with entanglement, as well as faster-than-light signaling, many worlds, and cats that are both dead and alive, and introduces some devices that exploit this weirdness. Totally Random also explores the debates between Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Hugh Everett, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and others about the paradigm-shaking discoveries of quantum mechanics.
Totally Random is a new, and subversive, look at quantum theory. The experiential narrative approach is especially successful in that it explains what the text cannot. The end result is an understanding of quantum mechanics that will completely change one's view of the physical world.
Well, so what? How does (will) quantum mechanics affect our lives? Why should we care? Good questions. To respond, first, back at the intersection of science, art, technology, and humanities we can expect developments that will change our worldviews. We should welcome this generation of new ideas. We need them to address present-day problems. Quantum mechanics promises many possibilities in the future. For example, while teleportation will not replace self-driving cars, long-haul airplanes, or sub-orbital space travel anytime soon, we might expect many interesting implications for how we communicate and share information over distance, and what we might do with that information. Artificial intelligence, for example, may benefit from advances in quantum computing, using quantum states of sub-atomic particles to compile and consider vast amounts of data.
A serious graphic novel about a difficult subject (quantum mechanics) may not appeal to every reader. But for those who want to know more about entanglement, Totally Random delivers a real understanding of some seriously funny stuff. Solid references and notes augment the presentation. Totally Random, a "serious comic," provides an excellent introduction to quantum mechanics, better perhaps than a massive textbook, certainly more interesting.