Physics made easy enough for kids - and dogs

Albany Times UnionFebruary 15, 2010 

When you think about it, "modern physics" isn't really all that modern anymore.

Einstein began drafting his theory of relativity in 1905, and quantum mechanics - which describes how things work at the sub-atomic level - was described by Max Planck in 1900.

Today, quantum mechanics is at the core of everything from bar code scanners to computer chips. And yet very few people are aware of even its most basic concepts. Ideas like particle-wave duality (the fact that light and matter have both wave and particle nature) are rarely covered in college physics classes, let alone high school.

So when Internet rumors claim that the CERN Large Hadron Collider - which smashes atoms together to see what pops out - is about to suck the Earth into a black hole, or when the latest DaVinci Code book features a physicist who uses "thought particles" to transform matter, most people don't know what to believe.

Author Chad Orzel hopes to bridge that gap in "How to Teach Physics to Your Dog" (Scribner, 2009). Orzel explains quantum mechanics to Emmy, his German shepherd mix, in language so down-to-earth and entertaining that even humans can understand.

Why a dog? Orzel, an associate professor of physics at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., says dogs have no preconceptions about where things come from. That makes it much easier for them to accept the idea of virtual particles and parallel universes.

"As bizarre as it seems to a human, as far as a dog is concerned, dog treats appear out of the air," Orzel said. "She will sit there staring, hackling at evil squirrels from another dimension."

For readers, following Orzel as he discusses the probability of bunnies made of cheese suddenly appearing in the backyard, or whether dogs can use their wave nature to pass around both sides of a tree at the same time, makes physics easier to understand.

"As scientists, we speak about it in math," Orzel said. "I wanted to find ways to get around that, to show how fascinatingly weird the world is without forcing them to go through three years of physics."

At the same time, Orzel added, "There is some heavy stuff in the book - decoherence, 'many worlds' theories - that you don't often encounter in popular treatments of the subject. The nice thing about writing with the dog is that whenever things get a bit thick, I can have her break in."

At those times, Emmy pipes up to remind Orzel, "I don't want to describe the universe, I want to catch squirrels."

The goal for Orzel is to help readers understand that although the universe is a really strange place, it still has rules.

"You can't will yourself into another universe where you're wealthy," he said. "I hope the dog is cute enough to carry people past some of the need for it to be magic."

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service