Built on Facts

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

Because I’m a bad busy person, this review of Chad Orzel’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is only, oh, about 8 months late. You have probably all bought it already. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what you’re getting into.

If you wander over to your local bookstore’s science section, you’ll see plenty of physics books. There’s the standard pontifications by string and high-energy theorists, there’s “The Physics of [pop culture fad]” books, there’s probably some egregious pseudoscience (“Heal your hernias with positive quantum thinking!”), and if you’re in a college town probably even a few textbooks. You will notice a severe lack of books by physicists explaining physics of the sort that’s theoretically solid, well-understood, and used every day in science and technology. This is true despite the fact that this sort of working physics is vastly more important to the world we live in than what may or may not be percolating in the latest LHC collision.

Readers of Chad’s book will be aware that he has an immensely intelligent and talkative German Shepherd named Emmy, who is interested in this sort of physics and the ways she might use it to catch squirrels and get biscuits out of the jar and other doggie concerns.

So Chad teaches her about entanglement, decoherence, tunneling, and even some truly wacky stuff like the tests of Bell’s inequalities, quantum erasers, and delayed choice experiments. He does so in a way that’s very tough to do, which is to make a technically knowledgeable reader say “Ah, he has finessed this subtle point quite accurately without needing math!” while a lay reader will be able to say “Ah, now I understand this!” This is tough. Most pop physics writers don’t manage it at all, but Chad pulls it off nicely. His discussion of quantum teleportation is especially nice, considering the generally horrific state of explanation of the subject in the press.

Any quibbles? Yes, one. In a few places he uses the “particle is in two places at once” style language while talking about the wave nature of particles. This is pretty universal in physics writing and honestly it’s more of my own idiosyncrasy, but I have never liked this formulation. People sometimes tend to think that quantum mechanics thus entails logical contradictions, which are of course impossible. I think it’s better to say that “location” is not really a property that a wave has, and that “two places at once” is more of a category error. But this is more or less just a matter of definition and it’s one where I’m somewhat in the minority of usage. In any case the book is pretty clear about what’s meant and readers are not likely to be confused.

And that’s that. Great book, certainly one of the best general physics books for the lay reader in many years. It’s out in hardback and Kindle, with the paperback version due out in time for Christmas. Go forth and read!