Who better to teach the magic of quantum physics than a talking dog? Sit down with Chad Orzel and his dog Emmy as he explains the laws of physics.
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How to Teach Physics to Your Dog
By Chad Orzel
ScribnerCopyright © 2009 Chad Orzel
All right reserved.
Why Talk to Your Dog about Physics?
An Introduction to Quantum Physics
The Mohawk-Hudson Humane Society has set up a little path through the woods near their facility outside Troy, so you can take a walk with a dog you're thinking of adopting. There's a bench on the side of the path in a small clearing, and I sit down to look at the dog I've taken out.
She sits down next to the bench, and pokes my hand with her nose, so I scratch behind her ears. My wife and I have looked at a bunch of dogs together, but Kate had to work, so I've been dispatched to pick out a dog by myself. This one seems like a good fit.
She's a year-old mixed-breed dog, German shepherd and something else. She's got the classic shepherd black and tan coloring, but she's small for a shepherd, and has floppy ears. The tag on her kennel door gave her name as "Princess," but that doesn't seem appropriate.
"What do you think, girl?" I ask. "What should we call you?"
"Call me Emmy!" she says.
"Because it's my name, silly."
Being called "silly" by a dog is a little surprising, but I guess she has a point. "Okay, I can't argue with that. So, do you want to come live with us?"
"Well, that depends," she says. "What's the critter situation like?"
"I like tochase things. Will there be critters for me to chase?"
"Well, yeah. We've got a good-sized yard, and there are lots of birds and squirrels, and the occasional rabbit."
"Ooooh! I like bunnies!" She wags her tail happily. "How about walks? Will I get walks?"
"And treats? I like treats."
"You'll get treats if you're a good dog."
She looks faintly offended. "I am a very good dog. You will give me treats. What do you do for a living?"
"What? Who's evaluating who, here?"
"I need to know if you deserve a dog as good as me." The name "Princess" may have been more apt than I thought. "What do you do for a living?"
"Well, my wife, Kate, is a lawyer, and I'm a professor of physics at Union College, over in Schenectady. I teach and do research in atomic physics and quantum optics."
"Quantum optics. Broadly defined, it's the study of the interaction between light and atoms in situations where you have to describe one or both of them using quantum physics."
"That sounds complicated."
"It is, but it's fascinating stuff. Quantum physics has all sorts of weird and wonderful properties. Particles behave like waves, and waves behave like particles. Particle properties are indeterminate until you measure them. Empty space is full of 'virtual particles' popping in and out of existence. It's really cool."
"Hmmm." She looks thoughtful, then says, "One last test."
"Rub my belly." She flops over on her back, and I reach down to rub her belly. After a minute of that, she stands up, shakes herself off, and says "Okay, you're pretty good. Let's go home."
We head back to the kennel to fill out the adoption paperwork. As we're walking, she says, "Quantum physics, huh? I'll have to learn something about that."
"Well, I'd be happy to explain it to you sometime."
Like most dog owners, I spend a lot of time talking to my dog. Most of our conversations are fairly typical -- don't eat that, don't climb on the furniture, let's go for a walk. Some of our conversations, though, are about quantum physics.
Why do I talk to my dog about quantum physics? Well, it's what I do for a living: I'm a college physics professor. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about quantum physics.
What is quantum physics? Quantum physics is one part of "modern physics," meaning physics based on laws discovered after about 1900. Laws and principles of physics that were developed before about 1900 are considered "classical" physics.
Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects -- tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring. Classical laws of motion govern the motion of anything large enough to see with the naked eye. Classical thermodynamics explains the physics of heating and cooling objects, and the operation of engines and refrigerators. Classical electromagnetism explains the behavior of lightbulbs, radios, and magnets.
Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday. This world was first revealed in experiments done in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which cannot be explained with classical laws of physics. New fields with different rules needed to be developed.
Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces. Albert Einstein introduced relativity in 1905, and it's a fascinating subject in its own right, but beyond the scope of this book.
The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about. Quantum physics or quantum mechanics* is the name given to the part of modern physics dealing with light and things that are very small -- molecules, single atoms, subatomic particles. Max Planck coined the word "quantum" in 1900, and Einstein won the Nobel Prize for presenting the first quantum theory of light. The full theory of quantum mechanics was developed over the next thirty years or so.
The people who made the theory, from early pioneers like Planck and Niels Bohr, who made the first quantum model of the hydrogen atom, to later visionaries like Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger, who each independently worked out what we now call "quantum electrodynamics" (QED), are rightly regarded as titans of physics. Some elements of quantum theory have even escaped the realm of physics and captured the popular imagination, like Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Erwin Schrödinger's cat paradox, and the parallel universes of Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation.
Modern life would be impossible without quantum mechanics. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.
Quantum theory's effect on science goes beyond the merely practical -- it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.
Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don't have definite properties until you measure them. It's a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where "virtual particles" pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.
Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it's science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale.* The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications. Quantum theory has been tested to an incredible level of precision, making it the most accurately tested theory in the history of scientific theories. Even its strangest predictions have been verified experimentally (as we'll see in chapters 7, 8, and 9).
So, quantum physics is neat stuff. But what does it have to do with dogs?
Dogs come to quantum physics in a better position than most humans. They approach the world with fewer preconceptions than humans, and always expect the unexpected. A dog can walk down the same street every day for a year, and it will be a new experience every day. Every rock, every bush, every tree will be sniffed as if it had never been sniffed before.
If dog treats appeared out of empty space in the middle of a kitchen, a human would freak out, but a dog would take it in stride. Indeed, for most dogs, the spontaneous generation of treats would be vindication -- they always expect treats to appear at any moment, for no obvious reason.
Quantum mechanics seems baffling and troubling to humans because it confounds our commonsense expectations about how the world works. Dogs are a much more receptive audience. The everyday world is a strange and marvelous place to a dog, and the predictions of quantum theory are no stranger or more marvelous than, say, the operation of a doorknob.
Discussing quantum physics with my dog is useful because it helps me see how to discuss quantum mechanics with humans. Part of learning quantum mechanics is learning to think like a dog. If you can look at the world the way a dog does, as an endless source of surprise and wonder, then quantum mechanics will seem a lot more approachable.
This book reproduces a series of conversations with my dog about quantum physics. Each conversation is followed by a detailed discussion of the physics involved, aimed at interested human readers. The topics range from ideas many people have heard of, like particle-wave duality (chapter 1) and the uncertainty principle (chapter 2), to the more advanced ideas of virtual particles and QED (chapter 9). These explanations include discussion of both the weird predictions of the theory (both practical and philosophical), and the experiments that demonstrate these predictions. They're selected for what dogs find most interesting and also illustrate the parts that humans find surprising.
"I don't know. I think it needs...more."
"More me. You don't talk about the fact that I'm an exceptionally smart dog."
"Well, okay -- "
"And exceptionally cute, too."
"Sure, but -- "
"And don't forget good. I'm way better than those other dogs."
"What other dogs?"
"Dogs who aren't me."
"Look, this is really a book about physics, not a book about you."
"Well, it ought to be more about me, that's all I'm saying."
"It's not, and you'll just have to live with that."
"Okay, fine. You need my help with the physics stuff, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sometimes you leave some stuff out, and don't answer all of my questions. You shouldn't do that."
"Like what? Give me an example."
"Ummm...I can't think of one now. If you read it to me, though, I'll point them out, and help fix them."
"Okay, that sounds fair. Here's what we'll do. We'll go over the book together, and if there are places where you think I've left stuff out, we can talk about them, and I'll put your comments in the book."
"Talk about them like we're doing now?"
"Yeah, like we're doing now."
"And you'll put the conversation in the book?"
"Yes, I will."
"In that case, we should talk about how I'm the very best, and I'm cute, and I should get more treats, and -- "
"Okay, that's about enough of that."
Copyright © 2009 by Chad Orzel, Ph.D.
Excerpted from How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel Copyright © 2009 by Chad Orzel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Chad Orzel was born and raised in central New York, and received a degree in physics from
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Non mathematical treatments of quantum mechanics are exceedingly difficult to to well. Most talk about the subject in vague ways that, unfortunately, misrepresent some of its concepts and nearly all make it difficult to create a mental framework of how individual aspects fit together and lead from one concept to another. Wonderfully, this book does not. The choice of key concepts to present and their order of presentation are superb. The first chapter sets the background with a good presentation of the particle-wave duality. This is important as it is key to understanding of later phenomena and why the theory emerges in the way it does. The order of topics provides needed stepping stones to grasp the theory. Special credit should be given for the list of "Central Principles of Quantum Mechanics." Listing them and presenting them in detail provides the groundwork for later topics, what's important about those topics and where and how do they fit together. The author has unusally good (and lucid) presentations on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Schrodinger's 'Dog', interpretations of quantum mechanics, entanglement and teleportation. His grounding key concepts and conclusions by presenting empirical evidence from key experiments provides anchors for understanding the subject. I applaud the chapter on misuses of quantum mechanics. Now, about this dog business ... the author's approach of teaching his dog, Emmy, is both astute and excellently done. This device is charming and disarming in that it takes the edge off the weight of the intellectual content while introducing some breathing room in the presentation. It allows the author to pose (and answer) natural questions that arise from the material and to restate explanations and insights in a natural way that doesn't make the reader feel inundated. The author, like a good author should, presents a well done glossary of terms and concepts. There is a very good further reading list. The understanding of these books will be greatly facilitated by reading the author's book first.
I just graduated from high school, and am going to college next year to double major in mathematics and physics. Lately, I have been debating on dropping my physics major, because I haven't been able to identify a modern use for physics that I would actually be able to do work with in a career. This book, however, told me something extremely different. Not only did it broaden my knowledge of physics, it showed me all the practical uses for quantum physics. I now know that I want to major in physics, without a doubt. I am not going to deny it; I felt extremely nerdy for reading this book over my summer vacation, but I couldn't put the thing down. I think I was practically drooling over the physics in it, and I definitely want to do more reading on the subject. The conversations with Emmy, Chad Orzel's dog, were all charming and really helped the book in making the difficult concepts understandable. I loved all of the "critter" references and I liked that microscopic ideas were turned into macroscopic examples. I would highly suggest this book for anyone who is remotely interested in physics. I will be reading it again very soon!
There is perhaps no area of Physics that has garnered as much fascination as quantum mechanics, save perhaps the theory of relativity. Yet in a sense the weirdness associated with quantum mechanics is even more profound than that associated with relativity. Relativity deals with physics of very fast objects, and even though it challenges our normal way of thinking, it still preserves some of the basic intuitions of what does it mean to be a physical object, how we measure properties of those objects, and what those objects can and cannot do. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, puts all those basic notion to a test. We are forced to reconsider even our basic understanding of what reality is. There have been many popular accounts of Quantum Mechanics over the years, and this book is yet another attempt of bringing this arcane field to the general readership. So despite what the title may say, this is not a book about Physics in general, but just about quantum mechanics. The dog from the title is author's German shepherd, and she is used as a stand-in for all the naïve, "Newtonian" ways of thinking about the world. Each chapter in the book covers a different aspect of quantum theory, and all the discussions are motivated in a light-hearted way by author's "dialogues" with his dog. These "dialogues" are meant to provide some comic relief from the otherwise technical subject matter. As such they work fine, although I am not the biggest fan of author's attempts at humor. The explanations provided in the book are actually very good - they are very well written, accessible to the general audience, and absolutely conceptually correct. This last point should not be taken for granted, as I have seen many attempts at making Physics accessible to the general audience that don't actually do justice to the actual Physics. One thing that I in particular like about this book is that it mentions several more recent experiments that have shed important light at the foundational aspects of quantum mechanics. In that respect this popular treatment is as up-to-date as they come. As a college Physics professor myself, I appreciate all the effort that the author has put into making this material accessible. As far as introductory, non-technical books on quantum mechanics go, this one clearly hits its targeted audience.
I'll keep this brief. I've been reading physics/astrophysics, quantum theory books and the like for a few years now and this one was truly a fresh approach. I would suggest than anyone interested in learning more about quantum theory read this book, as it comes at you in a way that is playful yet in-depth. I would tell anyone to sample the book in the very least however I am very happy to have it in my collection.
I have read severl books on advanced physic. THIS IS THE BEST I HAVE READ.
I liked How to Teach Physics to Your Dog because I love dogs and I learned much information about physics. Chad Orzel explains physics in such a way that general readers can understand it and he makes physics entertaining. I loved the chapter about Schrodinger's Dog. This chapter is a take off of Schrodinger's Cat, which is a classic physics thought experiment. I also liked leaning that Schrodinger thought up this experiment while on a ski holiday with many women. He was married. This proves that scientists are sexual beings too. It was interesting to learn why Ozel belives that dogs can understand physics easier than humans. This book gave me an appreciation of physics that I didn't have before reading this book. I highly recommend that both humans and dogs read this book.
This is really a great book, it provides easy to understand descriptions of the various and peculiar ways the phenomenal world manifests at the level of particle physics. Although I was attracted to the book by its funny name, I found the aside dialogs with his dog a little unnecessary and even distracting (maybe condescending). I recommend the book to those wanting to appreciate quantum physics without the somewhat brain-twisting approach often provided many authors. Mr. Orzel demonstrates a significant amount of empathy with those who wish to understand but lack formal training, but he should keep his great love for his dog to himself.