Although our homeschool science for the year is physics, and we’ve been focusing on “the good stuff” – relativity, quantum mechanics, alternate realities – it’s been hard to get my kids to pick up a book about the subject. We’ve watched some great NOVA specials, visited some physics labs and done a few fun experiments. But so far, nothing has inspired the kids to open up one of the many physics texts and popular books I’ve been scattering strategically around the house.
However, as luck would have it, I recently got the chance to interview Union College physics professor Chad Orzel. Orzel is a blogger, a dad, husband of fellow sci-fi/fantasy fan Kate Nepveu and owner of a very intelligent German Shepherd mix named Emmy. And thanks to a couple of entertaining dialogues with Emmy about the mysteries of quantum physics, Orzel is also author of a new book called How to Teach Physics to Your Dog.
About the highest praise this former English major can give any science book is that it makes you feel smarter when you’re done reading it. By that standard, Orzel’s book is a winner. He covers some weighty topics – entanglement, teleportation, virtual particles. But by presenting them in ways that dogs can understand, he makes them both concrete and enjoyable. Here’s a sample, as originally published on his blog Uncertain Principles:
I’m sitting at the computer typing, when the dog bumps up against my legs. I look down, and she’s sniffing the floor around my feet intently.
“What are you doing down there?”
“I’m looking for steak!” she says, wagging her tail hopefully.
“I’m pretty certain that there’s no steak down there,” I say. “I’ve never eaten steak at the computer, and I’ve certainly never dropped any on the floor.”
“You did in some universe,” she says, still sniffing.
I sigh. “I’m going to move the quantum physics books to a higher shelf, so you can’t reach them.”
“It won’t matter. I’ve got Wikipedia.”
Thanks to How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, I’ve been able to follow and pull together some of the other physics materials my kids and I have explored this year. The book even inspired me to conduct a Double-Slit Quantum Eraser experiment in my living room.
Best of all, Orzel was kind enough this week to let me bring a group of homeschooling families to Union College for a talk on “What Every Dog Should Know about Quantum Physics.” He showed the kids and parents what helium and neon light look like through diffraction grating, did a quick double-slit demonstration, and gave us a tour of his laser-cooling lab and the college’s own particle accelerator. Everybody came away a little smarter, and some of the more science-minded kids were really impressed. We even got to meet Emmy! Cute dogs and physics – what more could you ask for?
I’m still waiting for my kids to pick up Orzel’s book. But in the meantime, I know they’ve got a better understanding of some of the most cutting-edge aspects of modern physics than a lot of adults (and, arguably, than a lot of kids taking high school physics). If nothing else, I know that my understanding has grown by leaps and bounds, and I have Orzel to thank.