Thursday, January 30

A visit to M.C. Escher Park: The Relativity of Dogs, Cats, and Bunnies

"Wait, you have a 3m leash fitting under a 1.3m bridge? What is this, M.C. Escher Park?"  – Emmy the Dog (Loc 1291)

The point of the example confusing Emmy the dog (and me on the first read-through, if I'm being perfectly honest) is that "When trying to understand the effects of relativity, it's critical to keep track of which observers make which measurements at which times." One of the things I adore about How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog is the choice of examples, often from Emmy's point of view (or Nero the cat's -- but, as Emmy says, "'...cats aren't to be trusted. Particularly not cats named after insane Romans.'") that Orzel uses to explain various aspects of Einstein's principles of Relativity; from defining motion to the initial realization that maybe the universe didn't work quite as expected to the 1905 publication of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, "Time Slows When you're Chasing Bunnies" (time dilation), "Honey, I shrank the Bunnies" (length contraction, including the paradoxes caused by misapprehension of who is perceiving what when) and on to spacetime and through the search for a Unified Theory of Everything. Orzel takes a conversational tone both with the reader and in his asides with Emmy, and if his teaching style is anything like his writing style I'd love to take one of his classes one day.

There are also charts and graphs (often representing the aforementioned Emmy and Nero, as well as a handful of other canine, feline, and inanimate friends), and Emmy is forever trying to use relativistic physics in her neverending quest to get her teeth on the tasty bunnies and squirrels who are forever out of her reach. Emmy, brilliant as she is, cannot under her own propulsion get up to near-light speeds.

"It'd be way more fun to measure a relativistic bunny than to do boring logical inference from experiments with atomic clocks."  – Emmy
"I'll keep that in mind in case I ever end up with the billions of dollars it would take to build a bunny accelerator."
  – Orzel (Loc 1349)

I picked up both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog after the latter was the subject of a "The Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog. And while I suppose it might seem insulting: Dogs, after all, are not on the same level of comprehension as people for most things. But the conceit amused me far more than "The Idiot's Guide To..." or "...for Dummies", and then the writing style engaged me, and before I quite knew what hit me I was more than halfway through the book and -- though I wouldn't say my understanding is remotely complete -- found myself more than halfway through the book and reluctant to put it down to go to work.

"'It's all freaky and makes my head hurt. All the stuff I thought was fixed and unchanging is all different.'" (Loc 1394)

In his "Big Idea" piece, Orzel sums up what he wants the text to do thusly: "To a dog, the world is an endless source of surprise and wonder. [...] If you can put aside human preconceptions about what ought to happen, and work through the consequences[...], you can better appreciate the power and beauty of the theory." Keeping that in mind, I consider his work a success, and absolutely recommend both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog as primers for anyone interested in physics or relativity – and anyone who understands the underlying concepts. Emmy's humorous stabs at using misunderstood portions of the concepts are the icing on the proverbial cake.

(Side note; links to from this blog will also raise money for ACS, just like the main Cannonball Read blog. Links from Whatever will not.)

Wednesday, January 29

Clans and Cats and Murder, Oh My.

Boris the Deputy Cat gave Crazy that little extra edge of insanity it didn't really need. (pp. 174-175)

To be perfectly honest, I picked Crazy, VA up because it was free at the time. And because not that long ago I was talking to a friend whose comfort go-to is Romance Novels. And I realized mine are mysteries.

Crazy is a small town in Virginia, divided by a river and by family ties that go back generations. Right back to the founding of the town, as the reader learns in the first chapter of the novel. Sheriff Lil Eller straddles the divide not only in her role in the town but as the only child of both Littlepage and Eller clans. Although her parents were disinherited, she as a grandchild was not; she comes into money and promptly turns it back into an animal shelter. She's got no deputy other than the feral cat -- Boris -- who adopts her in one of the early chapters.

And then Lisa Littlepage, her cousin, is murdered.

Obviously, Sheriff Eller's life gets a whole bunch more interesting. The investigation, Boris, the county police Chief dragging his heels over the investigation, the building of the animal shelter, another cousin demanding she take the investigation back and hiring a (human) deputy she desperately needs and doesn't like, Boris, drunks, animal abusers, adults getting stuck in almost frozen natural water slides, a hurricane, Halloween...

Scared people make stupid mistakes, and there'd already been enough of those by the look of things. (p. 197)

And the murder hanging over her head the whole time.

Hill's writing style is bright and easy to read, and she does an excellent job of bringing not only Lil Eller and Boris but also the supporting characters to life. First person can be complicated to bring off satisfactorily, but Lil's resilience, stubbornness, and generally no-nonsense manner carry through consistently (even if she does ascribe perhaps more intelligence and intent to Boris' actions than are strictly plausible. Hey, I'm a pet person, I ascribe intelligence and intent to my guinea pigs and they're not half as smart as your average cat).

There's a quote toward the end of the book that sums up my feelings about the whole thing pretty well: "Business as usual. Funny, how comforting that can be." (p. 219) I didn't pick up Crazy, VA for a challenging read or because I wanted to wear my literary criticism glasses. I picked it up because I wanted a murder mystery to comfort myself with, a little literary bon bon. I'll be picking up the rest of Hill's novels eventually, because crazily enough this book just hit the spot.

(Side note; links to from this blog will also raise money for ACS, just like the main Cannonball Read blog. I'm not sure how that works with the book's built-in 25% going to animal charities, but hey.)