Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics

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Physics, once known as "natural philosophy," is the most basic science, explaining the world we live in, from the largest scale down to the very, very, very smallest, and our understanding of it has changed over many centuries. In Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, science writer Jennifer Ouellette traces key developments in the field, setting descriptions of the fundamentals of physics in their historical context as well as against a broad cultural backdrop. Newton’s laws are illustrated via the film Addams Family Values, while Back to the Future demonstrates the finer points of special relativity. Poe’s "The Purloined Letter" serves to illuminate the mysterious nature of neutrinos, and Jeanette Winterson’s novel Gut Symmetries provides an elegant metaphorical framework for string theory. An enchanting and edifying read, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats shows that physics is not an arcane field of study but a profoundly human endeavor—and a fundamental part of our everyday world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In 38 brief chapters, journalist Ouellette, whose "This Month in Physics History" column runs in APS (American Physical Society) News, presents an engaging overview of key advances in physics from the early 1500s to today. Although she admits in her preface that something is bound to be lost in translation whenever one tries to describe physical phenomena without actually using physics, she does a commendable job of making the underlying science accessible to the average reader without changing its essence. Ouellette's method of drawing interesting and sometimes vaguely weird parallels between snippets of pop culture and physics-e.g., likening one science fiction character's ability to bypass his companion's social defenses against him to the quantum mechanical effect of "tunneling"-keeps the reader captivated. The topics, which range from Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein to Velcro and Deep Blue, and the human factor that Ouellette has injected into the telling of each story add up to an enjoyable read for science fans. Recommended for all libraries.-Marcia Franklin, Academy Coll. Lib., Bloomington, MN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143036036
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 962,904
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of three previous books, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Physics of the Buffyverse, and The Calculus Diaries. She writes the popular science and culture blog Cocktail Party Physics for Scientific American. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Table of Contents

1 Renaissance man : 1509 : publication of de divina proportione 1
2 Talkin' 'bout a revolution : 1542 : publication of de revolutionibus 9
3 Lens crafters : circa 1590 : invention of the microscope 18
4 Good heavens : January 7, 1610 : Galileo discovers moons of Jupiter 26
5 Gravity's guru : July 1687 : publication of Newton's principia 34
6 Drawing down the fire : June 1752 : Franklin's kite experiment 43
7 Trompe l'Oeil : 1807 : invention of the camera Lucida 51
8 Rules of attraction : 1820 : first evidence of electromagnetism 60
9 Ingenious engines : circa 1840s : Babbage's analytical engine 67
10 Emperors of the air : September 24, 1852 : first dirigible takes flight 74
11 Disorderly conduct : June 1871 : Maxwell and his demon 82
12 Queens of science : November 1872 : death of Mary Somerville 89
13 Calling Mister Watson : March 10, 1876 : first documented transmission of human speech 96
14 Thrill seekers : 1884 : first U.S. roller coaster opens at Coney Island 104
15 Current affairs : May 1888 : Tesla and electric power generation 112
16 Shadow casters : February 2, 1893 : Edison films a sneeze 120
17 Radio days : 1895 : tesla demonstrates wireless radio 129
18 Mysterious rays : November 8, 1895 : Roentgen discovers X rays 137
19 A thousand points of light : October 1897 : discovery of the electron 144
20 Quantum leap : October 1900 : planck introduces quanta 152
21 It's all relative : June 1905 : Einstein introduces special relativity 161
22 Rocket man : March 16, 1926 : launch of the first liquid-fuel rocket 170
23 That darn cat : 1935 : Schrodinger's quantum cat 177
24 Copy that : October 1938 : first xerographic copy 185
25 Life during wartime : July 1945 : the trinity test 192
26 Gimme shelter : June 2-4, 1947 : the shelter island conference 200
27 Tiny bubbles : 1948 Reddi-Wip appears on the market 208
28 Mimicking mother nature : May 13, 1958 : Velcro trademark registered 216
29 Energize me : December 1958 : invention of the laser 224
30 Small world : December 29, 1959 : Feynman's classic caltech lecture 232
31 Contemplating chaos : Circa January 1961 : Lorenz and the butterfly effect 240
32 Kamikaze cosmos : July 1963 : discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation 247
33 When particles collide : April 1994 : discovery of the top quark 254
34 Checkmate : May 1997 : deep blue defeats Kasparov 261
35 Much ado about nothing : December 1998 : discovery of the accelerating universe 269
36 The case of the missing neutrinos : February 2001 : solution to solar neutrino problem 276
37 Icarus descending : September 2002 : Schden found guilty of scientific misconduct 283
38 String section : October 2003 : nova special on string theory 291
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