Fine Structure

Learning Physics from your Dog

You may recall a certain contest a while back at Uncertain Principles which had dispensed some early copies of Chad Orzel's forthcoming popular physics book, How to Teach Physics to your Dog. I managed to snag a copy with a fine rendition of LOLEMMY and I've found myself a little commute time to finish it recently.

Casual physics intro books are quite possibly the hardest subgenre of physics books to write. Textbooks and further upper-level reading have expectations both of what you already know and how quickly you should pick up new material. Generally, those who pour through these types of books will read and reread until they've figured things out, regardless of how well the text actually explains things. Casual intro books, on the other hand, exist for a readership that has little devotion in comparison. Either the book is a near-perfect balance of new material paired with examples and explanations or it falls flat as readers loose interest.

How to Teach Physics to your Dog is one of these casual intro books with balance. Chad has always explained technical topics well on his blog but that alone doesn't provide much cohesive structure to draw in casual book readers. The glue here is the dialog with Emmy; a clear perspective from someone who has smart questions. If you're not reading along and thinking the same questions that Emmy verbalizes, you're thinking "Hey, that is a really interesting point!"

Emmy is, of course, a very smart dog. Throughout her book (or, should I say, "Chad's book"), she knows precisely when to ask all the right questions about quantum teleportation or tunneling or whatever topic is being covered. This reaches a point in the book where I began to wonder how her luck with understanding the crux of the most important quantum topics continues to be so damn spot-on. After a long while of thinking about it, my current hypothesis goes like this: Emmy, playing the role of the curious-yet-uneducated dog, has a secret. She keeps a deep pool of quantum knowledge hidden away from everyone she encounters in an effort to put her knowledge to use through Chad's experimental work.

Why would she do such a thing? The answer is quite simple: who wouldn't want a dog that knows quantum physics? She would be whisked off to some circus sideshow where she would be forced to doodle equations on a blackboard in front of hundreds of dazzled onlookers who don't have any idea what brilliance they're actually witnessing. No, no. She is much smarter than that.

Next time you see Chad, ask him on how many occasions he has returned home from a long day in the lab, slumped down on the couch and explained every frustration he's had in the lab to Emmy. Emmy, not wanting to give herself away, has to work this curious dog angle to the point where she can ask just the right thing and point Chad in the right direction for tomorrow. How many times has this discussion with Emmy lead to a success on the next day? Chad's a smart guy, don't get me wrong, he just doesn't have the same amount of lab experience that Emmy clearly shows.

So, in short, How to Teach Physics to your Dog is a great introduction to the concepts of modern physics. Chad manages to explain a number of cutting-edge phenomena in terms that should have readers getting excited about physics, even if he does defeat everyone's favorite wishful thinking in teleportation.