Currently Reading: Quantum Physics!?

I’m in the middle of an immensely satisfying book which explains quantum physics in a way I can (at least for a few minutes at a time) understand — which, if you knew anything about my science grades in high school and college, is really saying something.

The premise of How to Teach Physics To Your Dog is that physics professor Chad Orzel (the author) is explaining concepts and conundrums of quantum mechanics to the unusually inquisitive, not to mention talking, dog he adopted from the pound.

And it’s awesome. The frame of explaining concepts to Emmy (the dog) is quite effective — what does the uncertainty principle mean about the probability of finding bunnies in the yard? Is measuring what made her bone disappear? How does one get to the universe where steak IS dropped on the floor? The dog’s voice is, admittedly, a tad cheesy now and then, but I like it and the humor is well-paced with the tougher concepts.

And as a lay reader I like hearing Emmy say, “Uncertain electrons are weird.” Just what I was thinking. She also tends to ask the same questions I would. Emmy’s single-mindedness (bunnies! treats! kibble! rub my belly!) combined with a dog’s tendency to both take things as they come (as Orzel points out: “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.”) and to find the everyday world in general a fascinating place, makes her the perfect student.

A sample of how Orzel introduces a concept:

“I can’t find my bone,” she [Emmy] says. “Do you know where my bone is?”

“I have no idea where your bone is,” I say, “but I can tell you exactly how fast it’s moving.”

There’s silence in response, and when I look up, she’s staring at me blankly.

“It’s a physics joke,” I explain, because that always makes things funnier. “You know, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? […]

A few pages later, after learning what the uncertainty principle is (and isn’t), we’re looking at wavefunction charts and talking about how “the probability of finding the bunny at a given point oscillates: bunny, Bunny, BUNNY, Bunny, bunny, Bunny, BUNNY, bunny, and so on.” And it makes sense.

The concepts of quantum mechanics are fascinating (and crazy!) and I’m not ashamed to be learning about them at a dog’s level of explanation, not with such a good-humored and well-written book as this one.

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