Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, by Jennifer Ouellette, is an exploration of popular culture, including literature, movies, TV shows, and so on. Ouellette demonstrates a well studied knowledge of these areas of human endeavor, and she is an excellent writer. This means that when you have explored these aspects of day to day life, you will at the end have a reasonably good understanding…
… of quantum physics.
Well, not really, though this is how Black Bodies is often described. In reality, Jennifer, in these re-worked and updated entries from her regular writing on the subject, addresses a wide range of physics topics working entirely from the point of view of someone whose main objective is to explain it all clearly so that virtually anyone can understand, without losing the nuances or the subtleties. And she does an excellent job.
As author of The Physics of the Buffyverse, author of the blog Twisted Physics and regular contributor to the blog Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer has unparalleled experience in taking on that which is really really hard … those thresholds, those stumbling blocks, those squeezy parts of your brain that just can’t get that one part of the picture … and guiding her reader on to a reasonable level of understanding.
There is no magic here, just unmitigated skill. En route to Planck’s Constant, Jennifer begins by noting the importance of duality in late Victorian literature (by referencing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and introduces the reader to light by saying that it is not surprising that light possesses an equally strange duality. Before the reader has a chance to find out just how odd this duality is, the assertion of duality as a feature of light is made via this cultural reference. That’s not hard any more. That’s easy.
She admits that Planck’s constant is ‘absurd’ and notes that Planck thought so too, and brings the reader painlessly through all the steps that Teh Physics itself went through on its way from an observable, tangible, physical Newtonian/Kelvinistic world to the spooky Heisenbergian/Einsteinian house of mirrors we now know it as. Jennifer’s is the best description I’ve read (and I’ve read a dozen or so) of this important period in the history of physics (the understanding of black bodies, the photoelectric effects, quanta, etc.) Schroedinger’s cat would be proud. Or not.
And that is just one example pulled from a wide range of topics. The whole book is good.
I recommend this book for anyone, and I would even urge you to consider giving this to a geeky youngster, depending on her/his proclivities. Put this with Jim Kakalios “The Physics of Superheros” and you’ve got a excellent set for a December Holiday Present!
Get the book and make it your evening reading for a week or so. It’s like taking Jennifer’s blog to bed with you. But without the power cord and the noisy fan and the overheated battery and all the other stuff that come with laptop computers….