I’m one of those people whose jobs have nothing to do with science, but who love science from afar. I could read science articles all day, and in my nerdhood, you can often find me glued to anything to do with science on TV.
But when the going gets tough â€” say, in an intro to physics class at the local community college â€” I run to series like Physics for Dummies/Idiots/Pathetic Imbeciles Who Thought Physics at a Local Community College Would be a Mickey Mouse Course. Sadly, sometimes the Dummies-type books are also a bit above my head. And that’s why I’m grateful that I can now shop for a book that’s ostensibly for someone with an even lower tolerance for physics pain: My dog.
Physics professor Chad Orzel’s latest book, How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, comes out today. It’s a followup to his similarly titled book on physics for dogs. You don’t have to be embarrassed to buy it in a bookstore, if you can still find a bookstore. It’s for your dog, after all. But of course, our little secret is that it’s really for you, and this is one book that really will help elucidate relatively. You might actually start to understand what Einstein came up with all those years ago. That is, your dog might …
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the professor himself. Here’s an excerpt from a Q&A on his website:
Why the dog?
Talking to the dog about physics is worthwhile because it can help me see how to explain physics to my human students. Humans all come at the subject with the same set of preconceptions about how the world works, and what “should” happen, and it can be very hard to shake those off. That’s a big barrier to understanding something like quantum physics.
Dogs look at the world in a very different way. To a dog, the world is a neverending source of wonder and amazement. You can walk your dog past the same rock every morning, and every morning, she’ll sniff that rock like she’s never sniffed it before. Dogs are surprised by things we take for granted, and they take in stride things that would leave us completely baffled.
Can you give an example?
Well, take the dog’s bowl, for example. Every now and then, we put scraps from dinner in the bowl when she’s not looking, and she’s become convinced that her bowl is magic– that tasty food just appears in it out of nowhere. She’ll wander over a couple of times a day, and look just to see if anything good has turned up, even when we haven’t been anywhere near the bowl in hours.
This puts her in a better position to understand quantum electrodynamics than many humans.
Sure. One of the most surprising features of QED, in Feynman’s formulation, is the idea of “virtual particles.” You have an electron that’s moving along, minding its own business, and every now and then, particle-antiparticle pairs just pop into existence for a very short time. They don’t stick around very long, but they have a real and measurable influence on the way electrons interact with each other, and with other particles.
You’re making this up, right?
No, not at all. One set of these interactions is described by a number called the “g-factor” of the electron, and this has been measured to something like fifteen decimal places, and the experimental measurement agrees perfectly with the theoretical prediction. If there weren’t electrons and positrons popping out of nowhere, there’s no way you could get that sort of agreement.
Well, like I said, the dog is perfectly comfortable with the idea of stuff popping into existence out of nowhere. If a great big steak were to suddenly appear on your dining room table, you’d probably be a little perturbed. The dog, on the other hand, would feel it was nothing more than her due.
So she’s perfectly okay with the idea of virtual particles, unlike most humans, who tend to say things like “You’re making this up, right?” She was already convinced that there were bunnies made of cheese popping in and out of the backyard, and just regards QED as a solid theoretical justification for her beliefs.
And this helps humans, how, exactly?
Physics has a reputation as a difficult and unapproachable subject, especially in fields like quantum mechanics, where the predictions of the theory confound our human preconceptions. If you can put aside a few of your usual notions of how the world works, and think about how things look to a dog, some aspects of physics that seem absolutely impossible to accept become a lot more approachable.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going over to Amazon to buy myself â€”er, Jake, that isâ€” a copy of this book straight away.
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