Black Bodies and Quantum Cats

Black Bodies and Quantum Cats

Tales From the Annals of Physics

Book - 2005
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Penguin Putnam
Physics, once known as "natural philosophy," is the most basic science, explaining the world we live in, from the largest scale down to the very, very, very smallest, and our understanding of it has changed over many centuries. In Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, science writer Jennifer Ouellette traces key developments in the field, setting descriptions of the fundamentals of physics in their historical context as well as against a broad cultural backdrop. Newton’s laws are illustrated via the film Addams Family Values, while Back to the Future demonstrates the finer points of special relativity. Poe’s "The Purloined Letter" serves to illuminate the mysterious nature of neutrinos, and Jeanette Winterson’s novel Gut Symmetries provides an elegant metaphorical framework for string theory. An enchanting and edifying read, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats shows that physics is not an arcane field of study but a profoundly human endeavor—and a fundamental part of our everyday world.

Baker & Taylor
Traces key advances in physics, explaining its basics using examples from films and literature such as "Back to the Future," which demonstrates special relativity, and Poe's "The Purloined Letter," which illustrates neutrinos.

& Taylor

Traces key developments in the field, illustrating the fundamentals of physics via films and literature, as in Back to the Future, which demonstrates the finer points of special relativity, or Poe's The Purloined Letter, which serves to illuminate the mysterious nature of neutrinos. Original.

Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2005
ISBN: 9780143036036
Characteristics: xv, 320 p. : ill. ; 21 cm


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Nov 26, 2018

This is a very approachable collection of 38 science articles organized roughly by timeline. Although ostensibly about physics, I think that's a broader subject than most realize. Ouellette makes a concerted effort to illustrate points with references to contemporary films or novels, and most of the time this is effective ... although My Big Fat Greek Wedding adds nothing to the explanation of quarks. I personally enjoyed the historical articles more for their back stories, although one of my brothers is a theoretical physicist focused on Bose-Einstein condensates so I could relate to the chapter on lasers. I was a bit surprised that ch9 and ch34, on early computing machines and AI respectively, failed to mention Alan Turing's code-breaking work or the Turing test (also Rossum's Universal Robots were simpler bio-engineered beings, not "robotic machine workers"). For those intrigued by ch7 on optics, I would recommend the documentary Tim's Vermeer (2013). For ch22 on rockets, you might like the film October Sky (1999). Chapter 37 on scientific misconduct continues to be relevant with the reproducibility of many psychology studies recently in question (btw, you might be interested in Gina Perry's 2013 book "Behind The Shock Machine").

Nov 02, 2018

I knew Ms. Ouelette in college (or at least could match the name to the face), but never knew she was a writer or a scientist. Then, a couple of years ago, she turned up being interviewed as a “science writer” on a NOVA TV documentary. (Hey! I used to know her!) So I looked up her books and checked out this one.

This is a long series of vignettes, anecdotes, and explanations (one might say blog posts) for the non-scientist. She doesn’t include specific chapters on pre-Renaissance ideas like the ancient Greek origin of atomic theory (those are worked into other chapters), but, beginning with the publication of the “De Divina Proportione” in 1509 and its discussion of the “golden ratio”, she gives chapters on virtually all important ideas in physics (and related fields of mathematics and cosmology) up to the aforementioned NOVA documentary on String Theory. Along the way there are digressions on topics as diverse as Velcro and roller-coasters on one hand and the atomic bomb and the bizarre implications of quantum mechanics on the other. (She doesn't discuss the discovery of the Higgs boson, which took place in 2012, after this book was written -- though she mentions its theoretical existence.)

Each short chapter can be read in a couple of minutes, and all are written with details, an amusing tone, and references to pop culture. A reader can go through the whole book in order or just browse and pick one at random. As for me, I’m going to have to check out some more of Ms. Ouelette’s books.


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