Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book review: “How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog” by Chad Orzel

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
By Chad Orzel
Basic Books (February 28, 2012)

Let me start with three disclaimers: First, I didn’t buy the book, I got a free copy from the editor. Second, this is the second of Chad Orzel’s dog physics books and I didn’t read the first. Third, I’m not a dog person.

Chad Orzel from Uncertain Principles is a professor for physics at Union College and the best known fact about him is that he talks to his dog, Emmy. Emmy is the type of dog large enough to sniff your genitals without clawing into your thighs, which I think counts in her favor.

That Chad talks to his dog is of course not the interesting part. I mean, I talk to my plants, but who cares? (How to teach hydrodynamics to your ficus.) But Chad imagines his dog talks back, and so the book contains conversations between Emmy and Chad about physics.

In this book, Chad covers the most important aspects of special and general relativity: time dilatation and length contraction, space-time diagrams, relativistic four-momentum, the equivalence principle, space-time curvature, the expansion of the universe and big bang theory. Emmy and Chad however go beyond that by introducing the reader also to the essentials of black holes, high energy particle collisions, the standard model of particle physics and Feynman diagrams. They even add a few words on grand unification and quantum gravity.

The physics explanations are very well done, and there are many references to recent observations and experiments, so the reader is not left with the impression that all this is last century’s stuff. The book contains many helpful figures and even a few equations. It also comes with a glossary and a guide to further reading.

Emmy’s role in the book is to engage Chad in a conversation. These dialogues are very well suited to introduce unfamiliar subjects because they offer a natural way to ask and answer questions, and Chad uses them masterfully. Besides Emmy the dog, the reader also meets Nero the cat and there are a lot of squirrels involved too. The book is written very well, in unique do..., oops, Orzel-style, with a light sense of humor.

It is difficult for me to judge this book. I must have read dozens of popular science introductions to special and general relativity, but most of them 20 years ago. Chad explains very well, but then all the dog stuff takes up a lot of space (the book has 300 pages) and if you are, like me, not really into dogs, the novelty wears off pretty fast and what’s left are lots of squirrels.

I did however learn something from this book, for example that dogs eat cheese, which was news to me. I also I learned that Emmy is partly German shepherd and thus knows the word “Gedankenexperiment,” though Stefan complains that she doesn’t know the difference between genitive and dative.

In summary, Chad Orzel’s book “How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog” is a flawless popular science book that gets across a lot of physics in an entertaining way. If you always wanted to know what special and general relativity is all about and why it matters, this is a good starting point. I’d give this book 5 out of 5 tail wags.


  1. Since the author in reality is trying to teach Relativity to the lay reader this means that the reader is the actual dog?

    If so an alternative title could be "How to teach Relativity to a dog like you" :-)

  2. His first book is quite good. Yes the "dog" stuff gets in the way but is quite humerus (dog-bone, get it? Um, yeah).

    Neil Bates found only one error in the First book (on Quantum Physics), which is better than decent for a first-time author.

    You may not be a dog person, Bee but have you ever spent time in a home where the owners had a dachshund, bred by your ancestors to go into badger holes? Funniest dang creatures on the planet, not like any other dog. Pablo Picasso owned one named "Lump". He said "It's not a dog, it's not human, it's something else." :-)

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  4. Hi Bee,

    Many thanks for the review. However I don’t think I’ll be reading Chad’s book anytime soon as it doesn’t sound it will enlighten me more about either Relativity or canines; although I’m indeed interested in and love both. That is my favourite popular book on the subject was written by Einstein himself and my favourite dog was my now long departed late great 130 lbs Newfoundland named Bonnie (who also loved cheese). Never the less there are two things that your review now has provoked me to wonder about, with the first is if Plato ever had a dog named Glaucon and the second being, with having had Bonnie so long could be why I’ve long hoped that the No-Hair Theorem regarding Black Holes will eventually be mathematically proven to be true :-)



  5. Hey Phil,

    I think I have found an actor who can play Glaucon once a screen play has been written. :)


  6. Hi Plato,

    That dog is perfect I think you should sign him up. Now all we have to do is see if Chad will produce and write the screen play. Have you given any serious thought to who should direct it. More seriously Chad might be a good candidate to present a PI public lecture; that is only if he brings his dog of course:-)

    ”It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community. These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not—or at least not in the main—through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the "humanities" as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.”

    -Albert Einstein "Education for Independent Thought", Ideas and Opinions, p-66, Crown Publishing 1954


    P.S. I just noticed the Hagel extension; is this related to something I should know about? :-)

  7. Phil: I just noticed the Hagel extension; is this related to something I should know about? :-)

    One might of felt a philosophical association to the name of just more or less an extension of Plato :) I like the quote by Einstein.


  8. Dogs are omnivores and eat essentially what humans eat. Many dogs eat only scraps from their owners.

  9. Phillip, ya got any more info you could add to the conversation. We are always looking for items like this.


  10. "Dogs are omnivores and eat essentially what humans eat."

    I beg you to improve your diet before it is too late.

    Meanwhile... teaching relativity, whether to dogs or to undergraduates, is extremely difficult. But it's also extremely important. I often feel that one of the main problems with contemporary physics is that too many physicists are overly attached to what they were told in undergraduate days. They know very well that special relativity is nothing but the geometry of Minkowski space, but secretly they still believe all that crap about lightning hitting trains, Einstein's "postulates", the fundamental importance of the Principle of Relativity [come on guys, the Poincare group is just the isometry group of Minkowski space, no big deal, certainly not "fundamental"], the Principle of Equivalences [which is either trivial or wrong --- do you guys really believe that the curvature tensor can be transformed away?] etc etc etc. And this has a strong and extremely malign influence on their expectations about future theories. How often have you heard that nonsense about string theory needing an analog of the Principle of Equivalence? As if we were not confused enough already. So what we need is not to teach relativity to dogs; we need someone to teach it to professors of physics....

  11. :-) This was a very witty review! Well done!


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