Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review: How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and The Macroscope

(I wrote this article for the Albany, NY Times Union newspaper. It originally appeared, in edited form, on January 24, 2010.)

When you think about it, “modern physics” isn’t really all that modern anymore. Einstein began drafting his theory of relativity in 1905, and quantum mechanics – which describes how things work at the sub-atomic level – was described by Max Planck in 1900. Today quantum mechanics is at the core of everything from bar code scanners to computer chips. It’s the most accurately tested theory in the history of science.
And yet very few people are aware of even its most basic concepts. Ideas like particle-wave duality (the fact that light and matter has both wave and particle nature) are rarely covered in college physics classes, let alone high school. So when Internet rumors claim that the CERN Large Hadron Collider, which smashes atoms together to see what pops out, is about to suck the Earth into a black hole, or when the latest DaVinci Code book features a physicist who uses “thought particles” to transform matter, most people don’t know what to believe.

That’s a gap two new books by local educators are hoping to bridge. In “How to Teach Physics to Your Dog,” (Scribner, 2009) author Chad Orzel explains quantum mechanics to Emmy, his German Shepard mix, in language so down-to-Earth and entertaining that even humans can understand. Why a dog? As Orzel, an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, explained recently, dogs have no preconceptions about where things come from. That makes it much easier for them to accept the idea of virtual particles and parallel universes.

“As bizarre as it seems to a human, as far as a dog is concerned dog treats appear out of the air,” Orzel said. “She will sit there staring, hackling at evil squirrels from another dimension.”

For readers, following Orzel as he discusses the probability of bunnies made of cheese suddenly appearing in the backyard, or whether dogs can use their wave nature to pass around both sides of a tree at the same time, makes modern physics easier to understand.

“As scientists,” Orzel said, “we speak about it in math. I wanted to find ways to get around that, to show how fascinatingly weird the world is without forcing them to go through three years of physics.”

At the same time, Orzel added, “There is some heavy stuff in the book -- decoherence, ‘many worlds’ theories – that you don’t often encounter in popular treatments of the subject. The nice thing about writing with the dog is that whenever things get a bit thick, I can have her break in.” At those times Emmy pipes up to remind Orzel, “I don’t want to describe the universe, I want to catch squirrels.”
The goal for Orzel is to help readers understand that although the universe is a really strange place, it still has rules, and physicists have been sucessful so far in understanding them.

“You can’t will yourself into another universe where you’re wealthy,” he said. “I hope the dog is cute enough to carry people past some of the need for it to be magic.”

While Orzel’s book was written for adults whose schooldays are behind them, “The Macroscope,” the first in the Adventures in Atomville series, aims to inspire kids who have yet to set foot in a physics classroom. It’s a fantasy story in which all the characters are atoms which behave in ways that reflect the properties of their particular elements. They eat (and emit) photons, and swat away pesky electron gnats. But the physics is hinted at, not explained outright. (A website explaining the science behind Atomville is under development.) Co-authors Jill Linz, a senior physics teaching associate at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and Cindy Schwarz, a professor of physics at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, both said that the plan was to pique kids’ interest, not lecture to them.

“We don’t necessarily want these kids to walk away knowing what’s going on with subatomic particles,” explained Schwarz. “We want them to keep the words in the back of their heads and feel more comfortable when they hear them again.”

Linz first developed Atomville as a way to reach non-science majors, and later went on to produce physics videos for elementary schools. Schwarz uses creative writing and music in her physics classes for non-majors, and has published a book of her students’ physics poems and stories called Tales from the Subatomic Zoo.
Linz and Schwarz are hoping schools will invite them in to talk about their book and about physics. Last spring Schwarz showed students in Poughkeepsie how atoms emit photons and letting them look through diffraction glasses to see the spectrum created by an element. She was happy to find that, months later, they still remembered the concepts they learned.

“They really got something out of this,” she said.