Friday, September 30

Book: How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, Chad Orzel Click for more info

The danger with being a smarter than the average cookie is not that it brings with it a certain arrogance, but more that it becomes difficult to relate to mere mortals (which is why I don't expect many of you to have realised what I did there).

Take quantum physics for example. Even the name itself sounds clever and so it's always going to be a tough task explaining it to the layman like me. But it's not impossible and there are many strategies available to transfer ideas and thoughts - most of which take time and effort to implement. Another way is to use analogy to relate and this is the approach Orzel takes in this book.

The problem is that almost by definition there are no analogies for quantum physics - Orzel explains as much in the first chapter. And yet he still tries to do this, using his dog Emmy, and her fondness for rabbits made out of cheese.

On the surface, this isn't really a problem; it's easy to ignore irrelevances like a talking dog after all. However the trouble here is that Orzel does this at the cost of the essential detail - he glosses over the important stuff and anaesthetises the reader with humour and theatre. Sure, some bits are funny, but for someone who is interested in the maths it's a little frustrating to be asked to suspend our disbelief instead of being made to understand.

The biggest show of Orzel's incapability of transmitting his ideas is toward the end - a whole chapter dedicated to slagging off and debunking other scientists (not that he would use that word to describe them). It's almost propaganda in style, and extremely ironic considering his book doesn't sound any more real and acceptable than those he criticises - I wouldn't be surprised if many more "con men" with a false understanding of quantum physics come about after reading this book. It actually reminded me of certain Islamic "scholarly" works, where the message essentially boils down to "believe me, not them". I don't expect that from science.

One of the themes of the book is to do with conservation of energy and an underlying natural order, but unfortunately it's Orzel who thinks we can get something out of nothing with his book. I've come away learning about some buzzwords but cannot say I have any kind of deeper understanding of the science. Which is a shame, since it means I can't really recommend this book.

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