In his first book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog Chad Orzel put quantum mechanics into terms even a German Shepherd mix (or English major) could understand by means of a dialectic with his pet Queen Emmy, whose interests run from chasing rabbits to virtual particles. Although the premise may sound like a stretch, as it turns out Emmy asks her owner just the right kind of insightful questions that help illustrate the weird and wonderful concepts that topic contains.
Now Orzel, a professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY, has a new book that gives the same treatment to the other great theory of modern physics. How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog covers everything from Einstein to dark matter, using analogies that dogs and ordinary people can relate to. For instance, the book helps readers visualize a light cone — which physicists use in spacetime diagrams to keep cause and effect from getting out of order as time and space stretch and contract — by letting Emmy compare it to a dog cone used to keep canines from biting at stitches.
Right now amateur science nuts like me actually have a wide range of materials to choose from to help them understand the hoopla over the LHC and other science news, from Brian Greene’s excellent TV specials to the CERN pop-up book. But reading Orzel’s book helped me tie several concepts together. What does a particle collider have to do with the Big Bang? Why does string theory require 10 or 11 dimensions? Orzel touches on these questions and more.
As with his first book, Orzel’s dialogues with Emmy are fun to read and about as clear as a complicated topic like relativity is going to get. In footnotes in the text, he includes anecdotes about the colorful personalities of the people involved in the discoveries he explains. And as a scifi fan himself, he also sprinkles in pop culture references as well as dog references.
Don’t get me wrong — despite its short length and fast pace, you will not breeze through this book. As voiced by Orzel, Emmy the dog does a better job of remembering concepts introduced a few chapters back than Kathy the human. While you can read it for pleasure, enjoying it involves staying alert and engaged. But the end result — understanding a little more of the amazing state of physical science and cosmology — is more than worth the effort.
I will say that I picked up Orzel’s first book hoping my teens would read it. Older kids who are interested in physics will definitely be able to follow along, but I myself never convinced my own children to give it a try. Nevertheless, they did get the short version in a program Orzel presented to our homeschool group a couple years (including a tour of Union College’s mini particle collider), and he is just as entertaining and understandable in person as on the printed page.
If you’re a layperson interested in keeping up with the latest news about physics, or the parent of a kid who wants to know more than most grade school textbooks will contain, I highly recommend How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. As with his first book, you’ll come out the other end feeling smarter than you went in — not bad, considering what they say about old dogs and new tricks.