Finished John Polkinghorne's Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction last night between bouts of dishwashing and playing Letterpress. I recommend it to interested nonscientists, as Polkinghorne makes it all the way through the main text without leaning on mathematical formalism (though he does head for the weeds a couple of times). I doubt it will be of much use to readers with strong math chops.
The point of the book is not to give a solid conceptual grounding in quantum theory. Unlike The Brain (in the same admirable series from Oxford University Press), which really does endeavour to explain the most basic workings of the brain in layman's terms, Polkinghorne's book is split between a history of the evolution of quantum physics, on one hand, and on the other, what's become Polkinghorne's chief professional interest: the epistemological debates that swirl around the field. (The author left the academy to become an Anglican minister, then returned to Oxford to work on science/faith questions.) As a result, you end the book aware of the contours of quantum theory as it stood upon the book's publication, but most of the book's informational payload is historical, while its method is almost impressionistic.
Polkinghorne uses the phrase 'cloudy and fitful' throughout the book to describe the quantum view of the world (vs the crisp mechanism of the Newtonian world), and I got the feeling that, having given up on the possibility of teaching a lay reader anything about the body of quantum theory as such, he was hoping to communicate the inescapable intensity of quantum theory's challenge to more or less everything humans have ever known about the world. Which is hugely interesting in itself, duh, and surely easier for Joe the Local Library Patron to wrap his head around than Hamiltonians and Hilbert spaces, but…
But I tend to think that one of the deepest problems faced by students at any level is being scared away from using the tools they have (by incompetent teachers, peer pressure from assholes, early trauma, selfishness, etc.). The 'cloudy and fitful' nature of the quantum world is scary and beautiful and intriguing, but what the physicist knows (and most students never learn, never feel in their bones) is that millennia-old mathematical tools offer an inroads into the questions opened up by quantum theory. Polkinghorne does his best to generate the abyssal feeling that open questions about the universe can give, but 99% of people will stop there and unconsciously choose not to worry about it, and the most effective weapon against that defense mechanism is sharpened skill. Stating the question is quite different from having the foggiest (cloudiest, most fitful) idea of how to make your way through it. To live with it.
Anyhow, I enjoyed the book, but it feels a bit like the right start to the wrong thing, if that makes any sense.
Up next: Tony Judt's Postwar. Lovely and sad so far. (The Apocryphal Gospels intro book isn't very exciting, and is taking me forever.)