Tag Archive: Orzel, Chad

Aug 20

Review: How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

How to Teach Relativity To Your Dog

My mentor in college (and whenever I need him these days) was/is Dr. Chuck Pearson.  Known to everyone except my friend Krystin as “Pearson” (because she refused to call a professor with a doctorate by such an informal name), I met him because he ran the Quiz Bowl team at Shorter.  He taught physics at Shorter, so I never had him for class, but I saw him all the time.  He clued me into a lot of how the college worked, was there for me in times good and rough, and he was one of the pillars of the school.  Truly, someone who embraced an open office policy with both arms, even for a Theatre/English double major.

Anywho, after reading this book, I regret never having taken one of his classes, because my brain kind of hurts.

Chad Orzel’s How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog is like baby’s first primer into the theory of relativity and how it has evolved over the last century.  I can tell that it’s basic because there’s a talking dog in it, and very few advanced science texts have talking dogs.  It is not basic due to the content though.  The book contains generalized explanations of the general and special theories of relativity, a lot of talk about the speed of light, a fair deal about black holes, and a lot of jumping off points for further research and inquiry.  Orzel tries very hard to make it understandable, and he typically succeeds.

The book is structured in 11 chapters that roughly tell the “story” of relativity from simplest ideas (history and the special theory of relativity, and the speed of light) to more complicated (general theory of relativity, black holes, unified theories).  Each chapter begins, ends, and is interspersed with conversations between Orzel and his dog, Emmy.  These conversations take on a Socratic dialogue style that helps extend the arguments and explanations of the book, but with more kibble, squirrels, and cat hate than one typically finds in The Republic.  

Also, poking at people with physics can be fun.  I keep telling Dale fun facts like that time is just another dimension of space or how length, distance, and time are relative or how we’re hurtling through the future at a second per second.  He just looks at me and shuts down.  I’m fascinated, but it has a glazing effect on those who don’t want to think about it too much. Edit: Dale objects to my glazing reference, so I should admit that I’m not the best explainer, and that I’m throwing these things out to confuse and get a rise out of people.  Because that’s what you should do with science.

However, sometimes the books greatest strength provides its own stumbling block.  At times, the conversation with the dog are a little too cutesy, and the metaphors that constantly stay with a dog/pack of dogs/cat motif become a little tiresome, especially with repetition.  While it kept the book consistent, it limits the illustrations used in the book, and I’m not sure that is always for the best.

Orzel has written another book about physics before this, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog that focuses on quantum mechanics, so that’s now also on my reading list.  This book has spurred me on to learn more about these general theories, but most of its going to have to be through popular nonfiction accounts–I simply don’t have the math for anything more complex.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how the universe started, where it’s going, black holes, or how time is just an illusion (kiind of), then this book serves as a good primer.

JMF Rating: 7/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF