How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog

October 14, 2010

If you have spent your life wondering how to understand one of the most counter-intuitive branches of science without going near the heavy mathematics, then this book may be for you. Armed with an approachable and friendly cover, the book adopts the novel approach of explaining quantum physics to something supposedly less able to understand it than you. Do you like dogs? Want to impress people with your knowledge of quantum theory? Combine the two in one paperback!

Becoming au fait with quantum theory involves a complete suspension of disbelief, as it is so radically at odds with everyday life. Any description requires very good explanations and pictures to get the stranger points across. The premise of this book is that Emmy, the eponymous dog of the title, has a desire to learn about quantum physics matched only in intensity by the urge to chase squirrels and critters (it is a very American book). Emmy bounds in at the start of every chapter with a hare- (or should that be dog?) brained scheme to catch squirrels, or eat steak, or cadge more dog treats, by exploiting an esoteric aspect of quantum physics - thus paving the way for a gentle lesson by her owner, the narrator, in the nature of that aspect and how it works. If the lesson becomes too long or arduous it is broken up by more conversations with the dog, and finally, after the lesson, another dog conversation ensues. Reading this book is rather like taking a simplified undergraduate lecture in quantum physics, minus the equations, where the lecture plan, summary, reminders of where the lecture is going and questions from the audience are rendered in dog-speak.

The approach is quite entertaining. The tone of the book is chatty and contains some truly awful puns involving dogs, which, if you can stand them, make it an attractive and lively read. However, don't be fooled - Emmy is no ordinary dog. She can reason with the informed leaps one may expect from a physics undergraduate, despite peppering her conversation with "squirrel", "bunny" and "chase".

The descriptions of quantum mechanics that intersperse her conversations also often assume familiarity with concepts that may be explained only later in the book, or sometimes not at all. There are many illustrative graphs in the text, which, if you are a scientist, may annoy you by their lack of labels or axis values, and if you are not, may confuse you with their rather dry captions. If you are considering buying this book, I would recommend you flick through it and make sure you are happy reading these descriptions first. You may also want to read this book in conjunction with some of the other excellent texts on the market, such as John Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality, to fill in any gaps.

The most enjoyable parts of this book, for me, were the chapters on the exciting implications of quantum theory - philosophical interpretation, entanglement, quantum teleportation and quantum electrodynamics. It is not often that you see these subjects explained at a non-expert level, and including them in a survey of the subject lifts this particular treatment above the ordinary.

In contrast, the final chapter, concerning the misuse of quantum mechanics to motivate some explanations of free energy and alternative therapies, seems a little strange and out of place.

Should you buy this book? If you are looking for something fun and quirky for a scientifically inclined Christmas stocking this year, you could do worse than try it. After all, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog

By Chad Orzel. Oneworld,304pp, £7.99. ISBN 9781851687794. Published 1 October 2010

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