Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Book review: “Breakfast with Einstein” by Chad Orzel

Breakfast with Einstein: The Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects
By Chad Orzel
BenBella Books (December 11, 2018)

Physics is everywhere, that is the message of Chad Orzel’s new book “Breakfast with Einstein,” and he delivers his message masterfully. In the serenity of an early morning, Orzel uses every-day examples to reveal the omnipresence of physics: The sunrise becomes an occasion to introduce nuclear physics, the beeping of an alarm a pathway to atomic clocks, a toaster leads to a discussion of zero-point energy.

Much of the book’s content is home-play for Orzel, whose research specializes in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. It shows: “Breakfast with Einstein” is full with applied science, from fibre-optic cables to semiconductors, data storage, lasers, smoke detectors, and tunneling microscopes. Orzel doesn’t only know what he writes about, he also knows what this knowledge is good for, and the reader benefits.

Like in his earlier books, Orzel’s explanations are easy to follow without glossing over details. The illustrations aid the text, and his writing style is characteristically straight-forward. While he does give the reader some historical context, Orzel keeps people-facts to an absolute minimum, and instead sticks with the science.

In contrast to many recent books about physics, Orzel stays away from speculation, and focuses instead on the many remarkable achievements that last century’s led to.

When it comes to popular science books, this one is as flawless as it gets. “Breakfast with Einstein,” I believe, will be understandable to anyone with an interest in the subject. I can warmly recommend it.

[Disclaimer: Free review copy]


  1. I guess "Orzel doesn’t only know what the writes about [...]" should be written as "Orzel doesn’t only know what he writes about [...]".

    But very nice review of the book ... Is there absolutely no criticism at all? I find it hard to believe in "perfect" outcomes.

  2. Sabine, thanks! I just purchased and partially read this book. It is an excellent example of scientifically accurate writing that simultaneously entertains and educates.

    I particularly liked Chapters 6, 7, and 9 on chemistry, solids, and magnets. In these chapters Chad Orzel explains what Pauli exclusion is, and the critical but subtle role that it plays in all of these phenomena. Too little is said about the role of Pauli exclusion in creating and stabilizing the astonishing complexity of the world in which we live. This book does a good job at helping to correct that deficiency.

    I'm still looking for two of my own favorite examples, although I haven't found them (yet): How the Planck uncertainty constant could just has well have been names the size constant, since doubling it would double the diameter of solid objects via the zero point energy that Orzel discusses in detail; and how mirrors are vividly quantum devices in which the top Fermi energy electrons that Orzel describes for semiconductors are hot enough in the case of metals to bounce photons off of mirrors, instead of absorbing them.

    Again, this is an excellent book and worth reading. My congratulations to Chad Orzel for writing an enjoyable and scientifically accurate contribution that will help more people understand physics.

    1. Terry, isn't the point about mirrors that the Fermi level for the metal is in the middle of the conduction band even at absolute zero,, and so you get high conductivity: that means E fields cannot penetrate and so you get a mirror.

      I.e.,the electrons in a mirror need not be "hot," as you say, at all: a mirror will still work at absolute zero.

      It's been decades since I took solid-state theory (from Ammon Yariv), but I am pretty sure I have this right.

    2. Hi PhysicistDave,

      You are right, I certainly could have stated that more clearly!

      By "hot" I meant the energy of an electron at the Fermi sea surface, not its thermodynamic temperature. For example, in silver the thermodynamic temperature of such an electron can indeed be arbitrarily close to absolute zero, even though the total energy of that state is quite high. If for example a Fermi surface electron in silver could somehow drop instantly to the ground state (it can't!), it would give off a photon in the X-ray range.

      It is only in this abstract and experimentally inaccessible sense that I mean such an electron is "hot".

    3. A simple mirror just needs a surface in real (not k-) space as e.g. Feynman describes here or here . A conducting layer is a mayor enhancement, but temperature plays no relevant role.

      What connects to thermodynamics is that with each reflected photon energy ℏω is distributed from A to B.
      The QM unitary evolution simply calculates the amplitudes. Each reflected and later absorbed photon represents a QM measurement. Whether or not fundamental QM randomness enters is an interpretation-depending and obviously still open issue.

      Chad Orzel says ”Some … were deeply troubled by this fundamental randomness, and sought a replacement theory that would be more deterministic” and also mentions Gerard ‘t Hooft here.
      Regarding interpretations Chad Orzel says about himself ”I’m temperamentally a shut-up-and-calculate person,” in Sabine´s book.

      What I liked most about Chad Orzel’s book is that he mentions many emergent phenomena like band structure, permanent magnets and details like how Hertz stumbled across the photoelectric effect.
      I did not know that Einstein’s light clock was introduced by Gilbert Lewis and Richard Tolman in 1909. Chad Orzel also connects here to ”Life on the Edge”.

  3. Thanks for the review; I will look for it.

  4. Off topic, but just passing this on. The Physics World Weekly podcast discusses a possible new collider, and cites the negative Op-Ed by Sabine. They did not approve. Jump to 17:00.

    1. Hi Marc,

      Thanks for pointing out.

      First, my Op-Ed wasn't "negative". In contrast, I am positive that we have new discoveries to make in the foundations of physics. I am saying that building larger colliders is not currently the best investment for progress in the area.

      Second, I did not perceive the podcast as critical. It says very clearly that we need to have a discussion about what's the best way to make progress and I agree with that. (I don't know the people speaking.)

  5. As a student I enjoyed the popular physics books written by George Gamow and featuring the adventures of Mr Tompkins, a fictional layman whose dreams were haunted by the imaginary real-world consequences of (mostly) quantum physics. How would you compare Orzel's work to Gamow's for entertainment value?

    PS: Re the disclaimer, surely all book reviewers receive free review copies, just as film reviewers attend free viewings, theatre reviewers get free tickets, and so on. There's no need to apologise.

    1. I didn't read Gamow's book, sorry, I only read some excerpts here and there (and will admit I didn't like those). Orzel's book doesn't tell stories, so if stories are what you are after, this one is not for you.

    2. Not really, just something that might influence my not-interested-in-physics-thank-you offspring to re-think their priorities.

      Gamow was not much use unless you understood the physics behind it (and it's horribly dated now, and English wasn't his first language).

  6. I've been reading Orzel since he was an undergrad, and he could always write, even if he was kind of an arrogant brat in those days.


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