Relativity Goes to the Dogs

This is late, and I have to apologize for that, but I finally got to finish reading Chad Orzel’s How To Teach Relativity To Your Dog. For my tardiness I blame the really nice stretch of weekend weather we’ve had, which “forced” me to do outdoorsy things with my disposable free time. (There’s also the issue of my bifocals, which make reading small-ish type somewhat uncomfortable, or I might have finished this one or two sittings)

Chad is a professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY (something I can type without looking it up, since I grew up in that area), has a background in atomic physics and writes a blog called Uncertain Principles. If you read my blog on a regular basis you should already know of him, since I link to his blog on a fairly regular basis.

I’ll get this part out of the way first: I am not a data point to confirm that this will help you understand relativity; I’m not really the target audience — I already have an understanding of relativity. I was happy to be offered a copy of the book for review, but I don’t normally buy mass-appeal (or books that aspire to be mass-appeal) physics books, because I already have a physics degree. But I can say this: I think it’s a valid approach, and it’s done fairly well.

The problem with mere textbooks is that they are usually quite dry, and pop-sci books often skimp on technical accuracy in trying to compensate to engage the reader. Chad has grabbed the middle ground in using the conversations with his German shepherd, Emmy (The Queen of Niskayuna) to both set up the discussions and to raise objections to the various conundrums that appear in learning about relativity. The dialogue format is helpful, because as anyone familiar with the topic knows, there are a lot of moments in learning relativity where the natural reactions is, “Whoa! That doesn’t make sense!” and this is pretty much what happens. (The only textbook I’ve read that uses a conversational approach is Electrodynamics by Griffiths, which is excellent) There’s a lot of dog dialogue (dogalogue?), and depending on your tolerance for the approach (along with some puns and pop-culture references) it might be a little much. There’s 300 pages of it.

Chad covers all the topics, starting with special relativity, including spacetime diagrams. Invariant quantities and E=mc^2 follow, and then general relativity, with all that entails, along with the ramifications of relativity in the form of cosmology and high-energy/particle physics.

The diagrams and equations are a necessary evil, but shouldn’t scare you off if you find them intimidating, because there’s plenty of discussion, and no problems to work. The satisfying part for me was that the level of technical accuracy is quite good (which is not at all surprising) even at the level where it probably wouldn’t matter to the casual reader, but things I would pick up on, especially in discussing clocks. In fact, I think my only technical nit was when he discusses energy holding nuclei together (forces hold things together) but in the context of the depth of the discussion, I understand the approach.

All in all, a pretty good book, and something a science enthusiast would probably find to be a worthwhile read.

That's Some Catch, That Catch-22

‘Catch-22’: A Paradox Turns 50 And Still Rings True

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Bomber pilot] Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. … Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

One of my favorites, even if I didn’t “get” some of it the first time I read it back when I was a teenager.

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture

Gbur’s Mathematical Methods

By golly, I wish I’d had this book as an undergrad.

As it was, I had to wait until this past January, at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference. These annual meetings in Durham, North Carolina feature scientists, journalists, teachers and students, all blurring the lines between one specialization and another, trying to figure out how the Internet can help us do and talk science. Lots of the attendees had books recently published or soon forthcoming, and the organizers arranged a drawing. We could each pick a book from the table, with all the books anonymized in brown paper wrapping. Greg “Dr. Skyskull” Gbur had brought fresh review copies of his textbook. Talking it over, we realized that if somebody who wasn’t a physics person got a mathematical methods textbook, they’d probably be sad. So, we went to the table and hefted the offerings until we found one which weighed enough to be full of equations, and everyone walked away happy.

The “we” includes me, because I scored a copy as well, and was in on the activity of sizing and weighing the anonymized books. There were probably more of these books than physicists (perhaps we can do better this year), though, so I imagine some species of biologist and/or journalist (statistically speaking) was disappointed.

Contemplating Conjurors

Pulling back the curtain: MIT anthropologist peers into the mysterious world of professional magicians

To find out how the craft works, Jones spent two years inside Paris’ thriving world of magic. He acquired mentors, passed an examination to join France’s largest magic association, and has emerged with a new book about the experience, Trade of the Tricks, published this month by the University of California Press.

Home Field Advantage

Swing for the Fences. A discussion of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won

What is the source of home field advantage? Is it one of the usual suspects, or an influence of the crowds on referees?

Take any European football league in which all the teams play each other twice in a season, once at home and once away. Add up the total number of home victories and compare it to the total number of away victories. The ratio will be at least 60:40 in favour of the home sides (often it’s more: in the English Premier League home advantage currently runs at around 63 per cent, in Spain’s La Liga it’s 65 and Italy’s Serie A it’s 67). The advantage holds across almost every major sport, though exactly how big it is tends to vary. Fans are so used to this that they take it for granted their team is much more likely to win on its own turf. They also take it for granted that they know why – it’s because the home crowd is cheering the team on. But there is no evidence for this. In fact, despite a fair amount of research in the top sports science journals, there is no conclusive explanation of what makes teams play better at home. This is the real puzzle about home advantage: everyone knows it exists but no one knows why.

It’s a Computer, so it Must be Right. Right?

The best intro book for any topic

Of course I checked out physics and in addition to Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon Guide to Physics, it gave a bunch of books on various topics within physics. I have read none of these books, so I have no basis for endorsing or disputing the choices; I don’t know if “Best Intro” means they were going for pop-sci books for a general audience or intro textbooks for the student or serious amateur. The Cartoon Guide might indicate one way — I’m not sure — but the other titles are or seem more like textbooks. The closest I can come to a recommendation is noting that the QM book is by David J Griffiths, I’ve heard good things about it, and his Electrodynamics textbook is very good.

Just Leave the Beretta, 007

Letters of Note: May I suggest that Mr. Bond be armed with a revolver?

Boothroyd’s long letter continued in a similar vein, filled with incredibly detailed weaponry suggestions for 007. Fleming, delighted to be furnished with such expert advice, immediately replied with the letter seen below, and, as a result of their subsequent correspondence, equipped Bond with a Walther PPK in the novel Dr. No.

Boothroyd’s observation about the Beretta being a lady’s gun lacking stopping power made it into the movie as “Nice and light — in a lady’s handbag. No stopping power” and the armourer was given the name Major Boothroyd.

The Making of James Bond

Terence Young: James Bond’s Creator?

Was Sam Spade charming? Phillip Marlowe? No. Their magnetism relied upon a novelist´s scratch of the pen or a female character that was there simply to fall for the hero. James Bond in the books suffered from the same malady, but what if Young and Maibaum could come up with a different approach. What if Bond CHARMED the ladies into bed. What if Bond could be taken back to the Errol Flynn personae that Fleming truly believed he had created. Bond would be a man of action like Flynn´s Don Juan, but now, for the first time, he wouldn´t just kiss the girl then swing out the window on a conveniently placed rope. This character was spending the night. James Bond was about to become irresistible to women AND he was going to bed the female characters with handsome good looks, and charm.