How to Teach Physics to Your Dog: explaining quantum physics through discussions with a German shepherd

Chad Orzel's How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is an absolutely delightful book on many axes: first, its subject matter, quantum physics, is arguably the most mind-bending scientific subject we have; second, the device of the book -- a quantum physicist, Orzel, explains quantum physics to Emmy, his cheeky German shepherd -- is a hoot, and has the singular advantage of making the mind-bending a little less traumatic when the going gets tough (quantum physics has a certain irreducible complexity that precludes an easy understanding of its implications); finally, third, it is extremely well-written, combining a scientist's rigor and accuracy with a natural raconteur's storytelling skill.

I find quantum physics very difficult to hold in my head. I can understand it while it's being explained, and sometimes for a day or two longer, but then it fizzles away (I find calculus to be of similar character). However, the essentials I've grasped have always come embedded in stories -- first in Greg Egan's magnificent debut novel Quarantine and now in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. The going isn't always smooth or easy, but for me, it has never been less hard!

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (official site)

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (Amazon)



  1. I took a quantum class on the graduate level to fulfill an out of department requirement for my applied math phd; so given that background granted my opinion is probably pretty skewed. But I really don’t think you can have any understanding of quantum without working problems and doing the math.

  2. That’s a black lab on the cover of hte book by the looks of it.

    Jeez – Are we going to get a whole new batch of mediocre books that ‘dumb down’ physics, philosophy and the meaning of life just because some upstart in Book Production read Richard Adams, Sophie’s World, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, saw ‘The Incredible Journey’ and now has an identity crisis? “Physics as entertainment” would be a better title.

    1. Have you read the book? It certainly seems like you haven’t, since “mediocre” and “dumb down” are two phrases no one who’d read the book could be expected to use in connection with it.

      Are we going to get a whole batch of ignorant, meanspirited comments that ‘piss’ all over books they haven’t read just because the comments’ authors are filled with bile?

      1. look at this awesome slapdown by cory. just look at it.

        For those who don’t want a too math-intensive mind-blowing relating to quantum mechanics, I recommend David Albert’s “Quantum Mechanics and Experience.” It deals with the more philosophical aspects of the theory.

      2. Seems to be the case around here lately.

        One could, however, theorize that the snarky tone of some of the articles posted on the main page do nothing to discourage such dickishness.

    2. Whether or not that’s an accurate description, what’s wrong with physics as entertainment? Ever hear of science fiction? Actually, there are a bunch of science concepts that I taught myself just to make sense of sci fi I’d been reading. Just try and make sense of The Integral Trees without some grasp of orbital mechanics.

      drtwist – I agree.

  3. Any book that can help explain, and make interesting, any technical subject is what we need more of. To be able to give this type of book to a young person to picque their interest is a great thing and can only help disseminate the seeds of a larger base of scientific knowledge. We have more than enough MBA’s and “XXX studies” majors (fill in the social blank). We need ways to swell interest in the sciences.

  4. @kai: I don’t think your perspective is skewed. I took QM as an undergraduate engineer and understood nothing. Years later, I decided I wanted to be a physicist and went back to grad school, and took multiple QM courses in the course of learning to be a HEP experimentalist. I don’t think one can understand QM without doing the math. Relativity, one can make sense of that by waving one’s hands and doing gedanken experiments (it takes the math to quantify it, but non-physicists can understand simultaneity and clocks and the measurement problem), but QM makes no sense without working through the math. Otherwise it’s just someone saying “uncertainty” and “cat” and the listener, canine or otherwise, taking it on faith, no different than religion.

    Dogs are probably especially fascinated by the possibly dead cat in a box part, but still.

    1. I disagree. There’s a limit to how much physics you can understand without math, and in particular, you need math to solve problems. But for QM, certainly you can understand enough to have a basic idea of why quantum computing is unusual, the orbital structures that give molecules their properties, the types of particles out there and some of the symmetries that relate them, and so on.

      Not worthwhile for the layman?

  5. Schrodinger taught quantum physics to his CAT didn’t he? And wasn’t this back in the 1920’s? So dogs just take a bit longer to get it, I guess.

  6. erm, does anyone else have a problem with the phrase “irreducible complexity?” It smacks of the whole “intelligent design” crowd and their unwillingness to actually go and learn about the stuff that they cannot easily understand. (Here, the Calculus and Q.Mech. instead.) — just saying, you might not want to use that phrase, Cory

  7. Axes. I got it. Like, “I’m gonna’ axes you’s a question.”

    And, in my opinion, that’s a Lab/Weimeriener from Redondo Beach, below Flagler near the Esplanade. And the photo was taken after a rainstorm. Or have I been reading Sherlock Holmes?
    (my two captcha words are “is and Roine”) What’s a “Roine”

  8. why does nobody write/buy popsci books on _classical_ mechanics? or at least I perceive that there are far more titles aimed at quantum stuff. if you want to educate the public about their world it seems that explaining what goes on at the level that we can see and experience is far more valuable.

  9. I do this all the time, only not with quatum physics, and with an imaginary caveman. I pick a technology or concept that I wish I had a better understanding of and then try to explain it (with research) to my imaginary caveman in terms he could understand. In the end, either me and my caveman come out better for it, or he kills me for using evil magic.

  10. I’m still trying to get my dog to understand simple Newtonian mechanics.

    She thinks she can catch squirrels chittering at her from the top of two-story buildings by leaping at them.

  11. Say Cory, that phrase “irreducible complexity” is a bit loaded, associated as it is with the Intelligent Design movement. Is there something else you can use here, or do you mean to use it in that specific way?

    1. if you mean highschool qm, then do you mean irreducible is bad because you can choose a different basis of eigenvectors depending on what your measuring, or something?

      perhaps ‘inscrutable’ rather than ‘irreducible’ would be more appropriate?

  12. If you like the idea of high level physics with a low level attitude I would HIGHLY suggest “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland”, a classic. It teaches modern physics by entering dream worlds where the speed of light is 20km/hr and Planks constant is 1. Google search yielded some free pdf’s. Enjoy!

  13. Actually Cory, no bile at all. As the book was only released 12/12/09 I had to make do with the site and I do not have the benefit you have of receiving advance copies. The book is on order from Amazon already on the basis of the Chapter 1 PDF sample I read. Note the “Are we going to get…” prefix rather than “Teaching Physics to Your Dog is a pile of …” whatever. The comment included examples of other media that spawned a whole series of mediocre copy-cat (or should that be dog or perhaps a dog in a box) productions that dumb-down the original stories. In the same vein as “TOPIC for Dummies” has its mimickers.

    Note to self: Remember to prefix all postings with “Do not shoot from the hip” to prevent a reflux action from others.

    Have a good vacation Cory.

  14. To those who have a problem with the phrase “irreducible complexity”: I think it’s a perfectly good phrase to describe quantum mechanics. It’s a complex subject that can’t be reduced down to something that’s nice and simple to understand. Let’s steal this expression from the ID crowd and make it mean something sensible.

    To those who say you can’t understand quantum mechanics without doing the maths: does doing the maths really help you to understand it? It enables you to do it, and to get an intuitive feel for it, but I don’t think anyone actually *understands* it. The maths is all there is – there’s no real physical theory behind it, which is what makes it so hard to understand. It’s a bit like the situation with special relativity before Einstein, when Lorentz had worked out most of the maths but nobody yet understood its true meaning.

    To those who want to understand the maths anyway (and are willing to put in the time): you could do a lot worse than starting here:

  15. I’m sorry if I haven’t read Feynman’s Lectures yet, but why yes, I’d like to be able to have a small grasp of quantum mechanics. I’m sure that, like with a lot of other things, the best I could hope to understand on the subject is the very edge of the basics, but to claim that it is impossible to have any understanding of it is by working out the equations is just plain stupid. I’m not going to finish Chad’s book and feel that I have experienced anything more than a casual, amusing introduction to the subject, and that’s what it’s intended for.

    Ivory-tower pinheads who demand that all books cover everything as extensively as possible are just plain wrong. There’s a place for stuff like this, and a person it’s meant for. That person is me.

    Trying to make people feel stupid for wanting to learn is, well, stupid.

    1. that it is impossible to have any understanding of it is by working out the equations is just plain stupid


      “understanding of it is by” s/b “understanding of it other than by”. Wish I could edit directly!

  16. calculus is hard! let’s go shopping!

    that is admirable, but the book isn’t about the basics. the book is about the details, written entirely in metaphor, without ever describing the details of the theory

    (to be inclusive, inertia is also hard)

  17. “I can understand it while it’s being explained”

    Ha! That makes you unique :-) I don’t think anybody understands quantum physics really!

  18. sure beats “Mr. Tompkins explores the Universe”, the old 1960’s version of the Tell it to your Dog series. Giving a book report on this to a TA in Physics 10 at UCB (the course taught by Dr. Teller for non-science majors), enabled me to graduate. Hopefully, some University is using this new version.

  19. I Have the book and I have read it. Chad Orzel using conversations with his shepherd mix pal Emmy does sound kinda dumb. But for those dummies like me (BA History/Anthroplolgy, MA, History)who want to understand what is happening in physics and don’t know the math, this book is great.

    As far as “dumbing down,” this book is on a par with the science for the non-scientist works of Asimov, Sagan, Jastrow, Ferris, Moore, and Tyson.
    Some people might want to check their spleens for leakage.

  20. I think it’s lovely to want to understand, or at least get the idea of, something as awesome as QM. But really, if you don’t get the math, you can’t grasp one of the main essences of the SCIENCE. Metaphorical thinking is how we grap most subjects, but the metaphors do NOT give you the ability to extend the reasoning and with predictive capability. Frankly, nearly every metaphor I’ve read for physics LESSENS the understanding-it does not increase it. Feynman made this point succinctly in “The Character of Physical Law”, in which he describes the principal of least action, and says, in effect “it just is”. There is no reason- you can’t derive it from Newton, but it works, so there.
    I’m not a physicist; I did take, mostly as as undergrad, several years of mathematical physics. When I was an adult, I had the chance to take Banesh Hoffmann’s last semester seminar on General Relativity (kind of from A to B, but beautifully taught by an old school Cambridge gentleman). Nearly everyone dropped out due to the supposed difficulty, so he made the final exam ridiculously easy by using the Schwarzchild solution as the main problem. I was offended by this, said so in the exam, and derived the solution all the way from Einstein’s first principles using old-fashioned tensors, and even re-derived the rules for manipulating co-variant derivatives. Well, I got what the chairman of the math dept said was probably the only A plus the ever gave in forty years of teaching (though I severely doubt this), from a guy who was a long-time collaborator or Einstein and Bose, no less. All of us “know” about black holes from the press: not all of us could PREDICT them from scratch just by THINKING. Math is a language. You can attempt to describe Debussy by referring to the French Impressionist painters, but prose is simply the wrong language, and your reader will miss 99% of the point and ALL of the beauty. Same here. Do the math. It’s worth it. And you will think better about a lot of other things too.
    Steven Mansdorf in NYC

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