Books: How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

I don’t remember where I saw the title of this book, a couple of months ago, but as soon as I read those words, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, I decided I had to read the book. I’m not interested in teaching physics to Kyra – I’d be content just to teach her not to jump at me every time I put my shoes on (which, in her mind, must mean I’m going to take her for a walk). But any science book with that creative a title has to be worth reading.

I might have been less eager if the title had specified quantum physics. I was thinking of classical physics, the kind I learned in Mr. Rothberg’s class in high school. There are plenty of examples of physics in action every time I take Kyra for a walk (she does lots of accelerating and decelerating, while I maintain a steady pace, which leads to a force at one end of the leash trying to balance a force in the opposite direction at the other end).

I’d be happy to learn more about electricity and light, two topics I found somewhat more difficult to grasp than Newton’s laws of motion. I remember one day Mr. Rothberg demonstrated a laser, using a large and no doubt expensive machine. We were warned to stay well out of the path of the beam of light, and I remember being surprised, a decade or two later, to discover that an inexpensive handheld laser pointer was quite safe to use. (We occasionally pull one out to play with Kyra, who can be entertained for quite some time chasing the little red light across the floor.)

But Chad Orzel is a college physics professor, and he does research in atomic physics and quantum optics. He does have some remarkably entertaining conversations with his dog, Emmy, on the implications of quantum theory for catching bunnies and chasing squirrels. (Emmy would be pleased to know that they are entertaining largely because of her contributions.) In between these brief interludes, Orzel explains various aspects of quantum theory, and I would not call it light reading (even when he is discussing the quantum properties of light).

Compared to the only other book I have read on quantum theory, however, Orzel’s book is a breeze. I bought Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind because it was about artificial intelligence, then found myself wading through chapters explaining quantum theory and using mathematical arguments I couldn’t begin to follow. I gave up on the math and just read the explanations in the text, and picked up perhaps a smidgen of understanding of quantum physics.

Orzel mentions Penrose’s book, though I can’t tell whether Orzel thinks Penrose’s arguments about quantum theory and human consciousness have any merit. Unlike Penrose, Orzel is not using quantum theory to try to advance any ideas of his own, just to educate people about science. As he explains in his blog (which led to writing the book),

Communicating science to the general public requires scientists to find a way to make science less intimidating, to find a voice that will make complex science seem more approachable to people who aren’t comfortable with the mathematical language of modern science.

The voice that Orzel finds, though his dog Emmy, is one that communicates in language the average person can understand. Even so, quantum theory is – as Orzel admits – very weird, and I’m not sure how well I understood even Orzel’s explanations. But I remember what our teachers sometimes pointed out in Bible school, that learning can benefit us even when we don’t remember all of it. A sieve can’t hold water, but pouring water through it gets the sieve clean.

I’m sure that analogy applies better to studying Scripture than physics (because Scripture guides us in removing the “dirt” of sin from our lives), but to some degree the principle should still apply. Orzel points out how the ideas of quantum physics have sometimes been misrepresented in popular culture (as well as by scam artists), and at least I think I can recognize those misleading representations now. And some bits of the correct explanations probably stuck too, though I doubt I could effectively explain them to someone else.

But I don’t have to try to explain them – I’ll just point everyone to Orzel’s book. With a title like that, you just have to give it a try.

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