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.)

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