February 23, 2012


The Quantum Universe (and Why Anything That Can Happen, Does). By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $25.

The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society. By David Wolman. Da Capo. $25.

     Particle-physics professor Brian Cox and theoretical-physics professor Jeff Forshaw, both from the University of Manchester, England, are determined to disprove physicist Richard Feynmann’s famed quip, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” They don’t really succeed in The Quantum Universe, but they have a good go at it, and manage to create a book that is highly informative and more than intermittently entertaining. “The key ideas [of quantum theory] are very simple in their technical content, but tricky in the way they challenge us to confront our prejudices about the world,” they write. Well, yes. Cox and Forshaw postulate a particle known to be in a particular place and ask what the chance is that it will be located somewhere else later. Then: “To Isaac Newton, this would have been a very dull question: if we place a particle somewhere and do nothing to it, then it’s not going to go anywhere. But Nature says, quite categorically, that this is simply wrong. In fact, Newton could not be more wrong. Here is the correct answer: the particle can be anywhere else in the Universe at the later time.” And this is the simple stuff. Quantum mechanics is the opposite of intuitive, and it is quite impossible to discuss without venturing into some amount of math as well as a certain level of representational logic. Thus – and again, this is one of the simpler examples here – Cox and Forshaw state a rule of quantum theory as straightforwardly as they can, using clock faces (a concept they have expanded from Feynmann) to try to make it as comprehensible as possible: “At a time t in the future, a clock a distance x from the original clock has its hand wound in an anti-clockwise direction by an amount proportional to x2; the amount of winding is also proportional to the mass of the particle m and inversely proportional to the time t.” The authors actually comment in the next paragraph that they have set up the rule this way and imagined a single initial clock “to simplify matters.”

Clearly The Quantum Universe is not a book to be read quickly, lightly or easily. But it is an important book nevertheless, and Cox and Forshaw deserve credit for making a tremendously difficult subject about as accessible and understandable as it can possibly be made. They open one chapter, for example, by writing, “That we do not fall through the floor is something of a mystery. To say the floor is ‘solid’ is not very helpful, not least because [physicist Ernest] Rutherford discovered that atoms are almost entirely empty space. The situation is made even more puzzling because, as far as we can tell, the fundamental particles of Nature are of no size at all.” By presenting everyday occurrences this way, the authors constantly emphasize and reemphasize the counterintuitive nature of the quantum world – while at the same time offering readers a way to understand how and why things can be so different on a microcosmic scale compared with a macrocosmic, Newtonian one. They occasionally miss a chance for a humorous aside, as when they mention that the first quantum-field theory discovered was “quantum electrodynamics, or QED,” without punning on the notion of “QED” as indicating the successful conclusion of a mathematical or philosophical argument. Still, they do a remarkably good job of walking readers gingerly through some extremely complex areas – although not with ease and not without requiring some understanding of math and, if possible, physics as a foundation. But there is something mentally salutary in reading a sentence such as, “That things work out just fine is not an accident and it hints at a deeper mathematical structure,” and realizing that all the abstruse discussion and sometimes hard-to-follow argument does have a solid underpinning – which means, for all the extreme difficulty of comprehending quantum physics, that our macrocosmic world does after all have a solid foundation. Even if most of it consists of empty space.

     Up in the macro world of everyday life, where our interactions with matter seem a lot easier to manage and understand, one of the simplest things we do each day is make purchases for cash. But if Cox and Forshaw obsessively attempt to simplify the enormously complex, Wired contributing editor David Wolman is determined to show that this apparently simple type of transaction is far more convoluted than it seems. The End of Money is Wolman’s world-spanning tour from a year in which he tried to avoid using cash at all – achieving something less than 100% success, but not a lot less. The book’s underlying idea of a “coming cashless society” is scarcely new in one sense, with many people believing the United States and other industrialized nations are well on the way there already, thanks to credit and debit cards, online payments, smart cards, pay-by-mobile-phone systems, mobile banking, and other technologies. Wolman’s interest, though, is in a completely cashless society, a cashless world, in which even the two billion people who earn less than $2 a day can find a medium of exchange other than cash. This is a huge leap, whose importance and efficacy Wolman overstates because of his own dislike of cash (which he talks about but never really explains satisfactorily; it just doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as he makes it). Wolman acknowledges that cash has many uses, for instance in giving tips to waiters and waitresses in U.S. restaurants. His solution to that is to move to a European model of higher wages, plus service charges on all bills. But this kind of social-reengineering approach is exactly what undermines a book that has many intriguing elements. Wolman wants a different world, and the continuing existence of cash is a surrogate for many things whose dislike for which he does make apparent, such as the international preeminence of the U.S. dollar (a dominance that is in any case changing).

The most interesting parts of The End of Money are its many character studies, and some of the people Wolman encounters really are characters. There is Glenn Guest, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Danielsville, Georgia, who explains that Christ’s return is sure to come but that before that, “‘once Satan has control, we will have a completely closed economic system’” in which only those who accept the Mark of the Beast will be able to take part in commerce. There is Dave Birch, creator of the Digital Money Forum, who believes the many costs of handling cash (security and manufacturing expenses being two of the obvious ones) are irrational and will eventually be found totally unacceptable. There is 67-year-old Bernard von NotHaus, deemed a “domestic terrorist” by federal prosecutors because of his minting of items that look and act like coins but that he determinedly says are not, at least not in any lawbreaking sense. Wolman’s interactions with these people and others are often fascinating; and certainly Wolman himself makes many good points about the absurdities of cash. But many are points that have frequently been made before – for instance, the fact that it costs more to make a penny than the value of that penny. And some of Wolman’s assertions are only partially correct: “The next big coinage spree in the United States will be the $1 presidential series. By 2016, the Fed should have about $2 billion worth of $1 coins available, even though many merchants and cash handling companies won’t stock them because people don’t use them. …If you’re wondering what in God’s name these money managers are thinking, you’re not alone.” Well, here is what they are thinking: they have to make the coins. For purely political reasons, Congress passed a law mandating the creation of the presidential dollar coins, even though the likelihood of those coins having significant economic utility is virtually nil. This is not some grand Treasury conspiracy to further the cause of cash, but a typical piece of political posturing by a Congress that is largely immune to the effects of its own bad decisions. Ultimately, The End of Money is too myopic and in some ways too unfocused to be a strong case for cash replacement everywhere and under all circumstances. It does raise some intriguing questions and present the views and personalities of some very interesting people – who are often, however, very much on the fringes of society. And it would be unfair to say that their and Wolman’s anti-cash crusade is much ado about nothing – there are significant disadvantages to having cash as pervasive a part of everyday life as it remains today – but it is much ado about something less momentous than Wolman would like his readers to believe.

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