The following is a guest post from Michael D. Fayer, author of Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World.
On Wednesday August 25th I drove thirty miles north from my home base as a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University to the San Francisco radio studio of the NPR station, KQED. I was to be interviewed by Dr. Moira Gunn for her national radio show, Tech Nation. In spite of a slight panic on the way caused by of all things a flat tire, Moira and I had a great conversation about my new book, Absolutely Small.
Of course, Moira has done thousands of radio interviews, but I have not, so this was a new experience for me. Having listened to Moira’s show over the years I was thrilled being on her show, though I admit I was a tad nervous. But Moira, the consummate professional and gracious host put me at ease immediately. We did the interview in a sound proof studio with one of those windows into the control room. A microphone on a stand was put in the right position in front of me, and I was warned not to move around too much. This is hard for me because I’m used to waving my arms and running around when I get excited talking about science, but I locked my face to the mike, and all went well.
We first talked about why the book is called Absolutely Small. I described how the concept of size is fundamental to understanding how quantum mechanics is different from classical mechanics. For example, classical mechanics is great for describing the flight of a base ball, designing an airplane, or landing a space craft on Mars. However, if you want to know why cherries are red and blue berries are blue, you need quantum theory. If you want to understand what a trans fat is or why electricity goes through metals but not glass, you need quantum theory. The vast majority of things that you see around you have their properties because of the nature of the atoms and molecules that make them up. Atoms, molecules, electrons, and photons are small in an absolute sense. The fundamental problem with classical mechanics is that in nature size is absolute, and classical mechanics is not set up to describe absolutely small objects. So at the beginning of the 20th century, the edifice of classical mechanics, which up to that time seemed to explain everything, began to fall apart.
One of the areas Moira and I discussed was fats. What is a polyunsaturated fats, a monounsaturated fats, and unnatural fats produced by chemical processing, trans fats. We have all heard of these fats, but what are they and why does it matter? Understanding the nature of molecules gives the answer. We also talked about the remarkable properties of absolutely small particles such as electrons and photon. The amazing thing about such objects is that in some sense they can be in more than one place at the same time. This is not a property of baseballs, and is counter to our intuition of how the world works. Quantum theory makes this seemingly impossible property of absolutely small particles understandable and shows how the property is necessary to explain phenomena that are important for describing the world around us.
Quantum theory seems to be mysterious, but it only seems that way because we don’t have a quantum theory intuition. We intuitively understand that if you hit a baseball harder, it will go farther. But our classical intuition stops working when we want to understand the beautiful world of atoms and molecules. Absolutely Small presents the material necessary to think quantum and gain a better understanding of our everyday world without the stumbling block of math.
Michael D. Fayer, Ph.D., is the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has won major prizes and honors in the fields of physics, chemistry, and molecular spectroscopy. He is the author of Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World and Elements of Quantum Mechanics.