Built on Facts

Ok, back from Christmas hiatus which I, uh, forgot to announce. But I am pleased that I survived a full 96+ hours with exactly zero internet access. Didn’t even miss it. Much.

Over that break, I happened to be in a bookstore in exurban Atlanta. Gravitating as I tend to do toward the science section, I saw this book:

It is of course How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, by ScienceBlogs’ own Chad Orzel. I can’t review it yet because I haven’t sat down and read it yet (I have a copy in the mail), though based on my bookstore perusing I am certain it will be as brilliant as expected, which is pretty darn brilliant, Uncertain Principles is a heck of a blog, and I have no idea how he finds time to write it so well since my own posting here is woefully sporadic and I’m just a student. Professors tend to do amounts of work that’s just totally nuts, and they do it very well.

All that aside, I’d like to ruminate a bit on a shortcoming in the popular physics press that I think this book addresses very well. Most physics books aimed at a general audience tend to be written by guys like Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene and Michio Kaku and others who make their way in physics doing the most esoteric and hypothetical physics possible. Though every one of them are as much smarter than me as I’m smarter than your average house cat, it’s also true that what they do is only tangentially related to what most physics is, and in some cases isn’t even physics at all. At its core, physics is simply the effort to empirically discover and explore the laws of nature. This isn’t possible without experimental testing, and to be charitable tests tend to be in short supply for the kinds of physics those scientists do. What they do is not illegitimate, since even decent ideas of any kind are in short supply at the highest levels of physics. But it’s very poorly representative of what physics is and does as a whole. A layman reading a popularization of string theory to understand physics is like… I dunno, maybe a Chinese physicist trying to understand English fiction by reading the Wikipedia article on Finnegans Wake.

Chad Orzel, on the other hand, is a brilliant physicist who works in the deep and beautiful but rigorously experimental world of atoms, molecules, and photons. From what I’ve seen thus far, his book reflects physics as it is – an exploration of nature by careful observation and careful thought about the things observed. That’s something that has been sorely lacking, and something I’m thrilled to see.


  1. #1 Uncle Al
    December 29, 2009

    Two generations of public education punctiliously ended understanding of simple declarative sentences and equations in one or more variables. One imagines anybody purchasing Chad’s book will appear in a Homeland Severity watch list – the one that matters.

    Electronics are magic. Worship and fill collection plates. Priesthood is by invitation only.

  2. #2 rob
    December 29, 2009

    so…what kind of kick back is Chad offering you to be a shill for his dog?


  3. #3 ppnl
    December 29, 2009

    I think many string theory types eventually move into condensed matter physics. So I don’t think there is all that much difference in what they do.

  4. #4 Nathan Myers
    December 29, 2009

    Only the very best make the jump from strings to condensed matter. After it’s gone on for a while, you can retire strings in good conscience.

  5. #5 Matt Springer
    December 30, 2009

    Ha! If you think being a ScienceBlogs writer is a particularly remunerative endeavor either in kickbacks or legit pay, boy howdy do I have a surprise for you!

    (Actually thanks to (imho) a tremendously stupid federal law, I’d be legally obligated to disclose if there was any compensation involved. But there ain’t. Too bad for me! 😉 )

  6. #6 marcus
    January 12, 2010

    And you didn’t buy the book at the bookstore why? You like perusing book and mortar bookstores but you order online. Will you feel sad when bookstores disappear? Understandable if you’re getting a free copy from the author. Support your local independent bookstores, please.

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