Can you learn quantum mechanics from a comic book?

The book currently on my nightstand is a slim, bright blue volume with the title Introducing Quantum Theory. It’s part of the “Introducing…” series, which presents big ideas and great thinkers, such as psychoanalysis, Derrida, and Stephen Hawking, in a purposefully friendly, unimposing format.

I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I first cracked open Introducing Quantum Theory and was greeted with nine caricatures of the fathers of quantum theory, including a very balding Max Planck and a rather Neanderthal-esque Niels Bohr. Unlike most books on the subject, most of this little volume’s text is in speech bubbles emanating from the mouth of famous scientists, drawn by the evocative and often humorous pen of Oscar Zarate. (Zarate is an accomplished comic book artist, perhaps best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s “A Small Killing.”)

This is not the usual approach to teaching quantum theory. But maybe it should be. In my first quantum mechanics class in college, a class aimed at preparing people seriously considering careers in physics, the professor presented the concepts of quantum theory almost as if they had been handed down by some all-knowing being. Equations went up on the board, as did graphs. But because quantum theory is a result of humans trying to understand the world they see around them, it really develops along a narrative path, driven by the actions and thoughts of key characters. Equations and graphs are absolutely necessary; it’s essential to be able to grasp concepts mathematically and manipulate them with dexterity. But an equations-and-graphs-only approach artificially turns a wonderful story of how the world’s greatest thinkers propelled a paradigm shift into a handful of numbers and symbols on an otherwise blank page. This approach also misleads students into thinking that somehow all of what they’re learning should be obvious.

Wolfgang Pauli, one of the fathers of quantum theory.(CERN Pauli Archive)

It’s not obvious, as Introducing Quantum Theory so ably illustrates. Quantum theory was a result of several people making observations that just didn’t make sense, and is filled with tales of brilliant minds who desperately tried to avoid using the theory to explain the world; Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “God doesn’t play dice.” But he wasn’t the only one who found quantum mechanics a hard pill to swallow. Max Planck struggled for years to find a classical explanation for black-body radiation’s stubbornly un-classical curve. J.J. Thompson, a legendary classical physicist, bristled at the arrival of a young Niels Bohr who wouldn’t stop pointing out that Rutherford’s experiments obliterated his model of the atom as a pudding of positive charge with negative charge studded in it like raisins.

Introducing Quantum Theory fills in what most college classes fail to mention—the history of quantum mechanics is a great story, full of egos, denial, and radical ideas, and driven essentially by experiments. There’s a vague sense these days that quantum mechanics has nothing to do with anything a normal person would care about. But something as mundane as a glowing coal clearly delineates the quantum world in the fact that it emits heat and light according to the blackbody spectrum that caused Max Planck so much existential pain.

Pauli, drawn by Oscar Zarate for Introducing Quantum Theory

The other very effective part of Introducing Quantum Theory‘s approach is the use of characters. A lot of individuals contributed bits and pieces to quantum mechanics as it grew from an embryo of an idea to a powerful predictor of the physical world. After a few pages of a physics textbook, these characters are reduced to a collection of names (usually German) and equations that quickly blur together. But when Schrodinger sort of looks like Keith Richards and Pauli like an evil Oompa-loompa, it’s easy to keep them separated in your head. Also, lecturers and textbooks use equations, not physicists, as their main characters—they present the Schrodinger wave equation but not Schrodinger, the Planck constant but not Planck. It helps to know who these people were, why they were asking these questions, and where they got their ideas.

I gripe about traditional methods, but I have to admit that, even in a popular science book, I need a few equations and graphs to sink my teeth into. Luckily, Introducing Quantum Mechanics doesn’t shy away from the essentials, but doesn’t use them as a crutch. I’m thoroughly enjoying relearning the concepts of quantum mechanics in their proper place as part of a developing train of thought. In an ideal world, I’d like to see professors teach introductory quantum mechanics within its historical and human context; they might even find that less students fall asleep in their classes! Until then, universities might consider tossing students this comic book along with the standard dry text.

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