Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics

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9780143036036: Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics

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.

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About the Author:

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of three previous books, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Physics of the Buffyverse, and The Calculus Diaries. She writes the popular science and culture blog Cocktail Party Physics for Scientific American. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

From The Washington Post:

Jennifer Ouellette must have been the kid who had a zillion questions ("Mommy, how can birds sit on power lines without getting fried?") and was never satisfied with the answers ("Are you sure they have wooden feet?"). She grew up to write "This Month in Physics History" for the American Physical Society's APS News, where she is an associate editor, and from that monthly column evolved Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales From the Annals of Physics (Penguin; paperback, $15), which bursts with answers for curious adults.

She begins by trying to banish the intimidation about her subject that seeps into the adult psyche: "Physics is a far cry from being a cold, hard discipline devoid of emotional content. Its history is replete not just with technological marvels and revolutionary ideas, but also with colorful personalities and human drama." Employing contemporary cultural icons like the movie "Addams Family Values" and The Da Vinci Code, she explains the principles behind acceleration and ancient geometrical anomalies.

While her dedication to accessibility is admirable, her use of contemporary science fiction as a talisman for readers doesn't pay off for those who've already forgotten "X-Files" agent Fox Mulder. But Ouellette shines when she pulls analogies from real life to explain, for example, why blackouts are more likely since the deregulation of the power industry.

In prose that is engaging and economical, she transports us to 1947, when the physicists who guaranteed the Allies' victory in World War II got a police escort through New York. She delves into the forces behind roller coasters, canned whipped cream and Velcro, and she closes with a reminder that there "are as many open questions and elusive mysteries as there are hard established facts."

(Washington Post staff writer)

Physics for Armchair Scientists
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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