The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook
Jerome Cardano was the kind of gifted polymath who could have existed only in 16th-century Europe, when science was just beginning to set itself apart from the domains of mysticism, magic and alchemy. He is the focus of Michael Brooks’s The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook, a charming mix of popular science, novel, history and biography. Such a genre-defying mash-up seems appropriate, even necessary, when dealing with the mercurial Cardano, who, among much else, was a doctor, astronomer, astrologist, mathematician, gambler, blasphemer, chemist and all-round eccentric.
Brooks argues that Cardano was the true, though rarely credited, father of probability. His ideas were developed in the motivating atmosphere of the gambling house, and would become the first attempt to understand probability as a mathematically determined set of theories and equations.
In Renaissance Italy, mathematical duels were a popular public spectacle, academia was a blood sport, and the favour of a powerful benefactor could elevate you to the highest ranks in society as swiftly as the machinations of an enemy could cast you down. Cardano had plenty of both. At his highest points, he enjoyed enormous wealth and influence and attended noblemen and kings as a physician and astrologer, while at his lows he was utterly destitute, imprisoned, banished and disowned by colleagues and family.
Here, his story is interwoven with explanations of the modern quantum physics that his theories would eventually engender. Brooks delivers quantum theory 101, lucidly describing the long and tortuous struggle to understand the very smallest, oldest and most fundamental pieces of our universe. The book is a fascinating and accessible primer on some of the meatiest and most controversial ideas in modern science: quantum entanglement, quantum interference, imaginary numbers and the Schrödinger equation, among others.
Less convincing is a conceit in which Brooks “visits” and “talks” with Cardano during his imprisonment in Bologna in 1570. It’s a device that toes the line of self-indulgence, but generous readers are likely to forgive this misstep in light of the book’s many other pleasures. Brooks is known for his ability to explain difficult science to non-specialist audiences, and his passionate interest in quantum physics and history animates every page of this engrossing book. DV
Scribe, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "Michael Brooks, The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook". Subscribe here.