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How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
Publisher: Basic Books (2012)
Details: 336 pages, Paperback
Topics: Science for the General Reader
MAA Review[Reviewed by Tom Schulte, on 09/13/2012]
The premise of this book is that a physics professor and his talking pet dog, Emmy, explore the concepts of general relativity. Add in Nero the cat and bunnies for a menagerie whose escapades become grist for a comedic twist on Socratic irony. The inquiry and debate between dog and master, often with opposing viewpoints, is obviously meant to stimulate critical thinking, but all too often the groan-inducing humor disrupts ideas meant to be illuminated. Inquiring dogs is not the sole dialectical method, fortunately. Skipping the farcical leaves much that is enlightening.
Key to the exposition here are several diagrams used throughout the text. The spacetime diagrams are particularly illustrative and their centrality in the book marks the high point of translating Einstein’s ideas. In a few pages, fundamentals from Minkowski diagrams to Noether’s Theorem to the hyperbolic image of the light cone are all nicely tied together. I will be adapting this portion of the material to exhibit for my undergraduates a practical application of the hyperbola that justifies the impossibility of faster than light travel. The only significant problem with the diagrams is that the animal icons are identical regardless of direction of motion and the actual direction is indicated only in the text, not in the diagrams.
Accessible and featuring a cast of characters to delight or ignore, this book moves from special and general relativity to such contemporary topics as the Higgs boson and the Standard Model. At just over three hundred pages, it is a compact introduction for a general audience, succinct and artfully instructive. It is not the “conversations with his dog” premise that makes this book a successful account of relativistic physics; it is the economy and clarity.
Tom Schulte clarifies conic sections and authors seldom read syllabi at Oakland Community College in Michigan.