Review of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel
How to Teach Physics to Your Dog
by Chad Orzel
Maybe a dog person would find Chad Orzel’s attempts to talk quantum mechanics in the language of a pet and her owner more endearing. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is Yet Another Pop Sci look at quantum mechanics, albeit one from a more technical than, say, historical perspective. Orzel frames each chapter within a conversation with his dog, Emmy, grounded in the context of something a dog would do, like hunt bunnies or eat treats. Unfortunately, the writing tries too hard to be cutesy and funny. I found this device far too distracting and cheesy for my tastes, and it adds very little to Orzel’s explanations.
As far as the quantum mechanics go, the development is fairly standard. It’s hard for me to approach books like this from the eyes of a first timer, because I’ve read so many—I don’t pretend that means I know a lot about quantum mechanics, but you do start to hear the same stories over and over. We are quite fortunate to live during a renaissance in books about quantum mechanics, so really, you are spoiled for choice. I don’t think How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is going to make it onto my list of recommended physics reads, though.
Orzel’s explanations, while admirably complete, also tend towards a level of technical complexity that belies the book’s pop science label. This is, of course, always the difficult balancing act these writers face: the more you lean on analogy or sacrifice detail, the less accurate your rendition of quantum mechanics becomes—but the more you strive for accuracy, the harder it is to comprehend. The former scenario makes for better reading, but it also introduces the potential for more misconceptions. As Orzel points out in the second chapter, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is well known even in popular culture—but it is also often misinterpreted as a statement about measurement rather than a statement about reality. I liked his explanation of that, as well as his explanations of the Copenhagen interpretation versus the many worlds theory. I was less enamoured whenever he started talking about photons as waves and interference patterns … the way he was explaining it ended up confusing me and doubting my knowledge of quantum physics rather than honing it!
The last chapter is a curious kind of addendum, in which Orzel debunks some of the abuses of the word “quantum” to promote healing scams or free energy scams. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I really like it when scientists take on these kinds of claims and explain why they are bunk and should be viewed sceptically. Also, Orzel does a pretty good job with those explanations. On the other hand, the tone is somewhat different from the rest of the book, so this last chapter feels less connected to what comes before.
All in all, this is a competent work of popular science. It has some good explanations and some confusing ones. I think Orzel demands or assumes a level of comfort with math higher than one might expect from the audience that would be drawn to the book’s framing conceit. That is to say, if you’re reading this because you like physics talk involving dogs, you might not be so happy with the equations and symbols Orzel occasionally throws your way. I can totally see there being a sweet spot, though, an audience for this book both dog-happy and math-friendly—but I just don’t belong to that, and I have plenty of other physics books I still need to read.