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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Books & Film

Alumna’s Book Links Science to Pop Culture

Physics for Life

IT'S BEEN A LONG WHILE since you closed the cover on your high school or college physics textbook. Do you remember what you learned? Is it applicable to your everyday life?

“People tend to think of physics as something scary and separate — I certainly did, prior to my rebirth as a science writer,” says Jennifer Ouellette ’85, a former English major and recovered “physics phobe” who has written an unusual book about the subject, interweaving science, history, and popular culture. “But physics is actually the most fundamental science. It’s behind the most basic things we do: walking, playing Frisbee, eating, etc.”

Published by Penguin Books in December 2005, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales From the Annals of Physics, is now receiving positive attention from the likes of The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle. “Jennifer Ouellette must have been the kid who had a zillion questions,” wrote a reviewer from The Post. “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.’”

Ouellette, associate editor of the American Physical Society publication APS NEWS, says her goal in writing the book was to reach people who are intimidated by physics. “I found that weaving in familiar things — books, movies, current events, everyday analogies — made the concepts much more palatable,” she says.

“We tend to fear those things with which we are unfamiliar. The turning point, for me, in terms of the physics phobia actually came after I’d started working for the American Physical Society. There were always lots of physicists about the office, many of them extremely well-known. I liked hearing about their work, but was quite intimidated at first. Then one day, I walked into the Xerox room, and there were literally three Nobel laureates standing around the Xerox machine, looking bemused and wondering aloud, ‘So … should we press Start?’ It was a very humanizing moment.”

So how does a physicist at Ouellette’s alma mater evaluate her unorthodox approach to the subject of physics? Response asked SPU Adjunct Professor of Physics Hunter Close to review Black Bodies and Quantum Cats:


JENNIFER OUELLETTE'S BOOK is a collection of stories about people, events, times, places, ideas, and devices in the history of physics. These are supplemented with explanations of physics concepts, often with references to elements from pop culture. In my opinion, the greatest educational value of the book is not in its explanations (though they are mostly correct and always entertaining), but in how it engages the reader with tales of a wide variety of topics in physics — from early telescopes and flying machines to nanoguitars and the camera obscura.

Educational research shows that most people don’t learn physics well even if it is explained correctly, clearly, and in an entertaining way. The reason for this is that physics is more a way of thinking than a collection of information. In general, we can’t change how someone thinks by explaining something to them. (Research also tells us that students can learn physics well if their initial ideas and patterns of thinking are understood by a teacher, and the teacher presents them with experiences and questions that help them change the way they think. That’s why teaching is such a challenging task.) Realistically, then, we shouldn’t expect this book’s explanations of physics alone to have a great deal of lasting effect on the reader’s understanding of physics.

What the book can have is an effect on the reader’s interest in physics, and interest is key to learning. Black Bodies’ references to The War of the Worlds, Superman, Harry Potter, etc. are fun, but even more exciting is reading Ouellette’s stories about Benjamin Franklin, Franz Mesmer, and Charles Babbage. These people really lived! What were they like? What sort of crazy stuff did they do? Apparently, Franklin made “lightning bells” that jingled during electric storms and installed them in his house; Mesmer ran a kind of new-age spa, where patients were submerged in glass powder and iron filings; and Babbage’s early “computers” were turned by a crank or powered by steam. Stuff like this is what makes Black Bodies a good read, for readers of any level of science background.

Subtle details of the structure of physical theories and concepts, though perhaps crucial from an academic point of view, can be sacrificed for the sake of good storytelling. Ouellette has therefore done what most scientists could not do — she has told better stories by choosing not to press the fine points of the physics and also, I suspect, of the history. So, there are inaccurate details peppered throughout the book, but this should be expected and (mostly) accepted.

The reader, though, should be aware that some of the fine points are either incorrect or debatable. For example, Ouellette states incorrectly that the pairs of forces weight and lift and thrust and drag on an airplane are examples of Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action (weight or thrust) there is an equal and opposite reaction (lift or drag). The forces in these pairs are not what Newton meant by “action” and “reaction.” Instead, his third law states that the action-reaction partner to the gravitational force (weight) on the airplane by Earth is the gravitational force on Earth by the airplane. This is a very strange idea, but it is what Newton said. Similarly, the action-reaction partner to the upward lift force on the airplane by the air is a downward force on the air by the airplane (which is not necessarily equal to the weight of the airplane), and so on.

Ouellette’s book, therefore, is best, not as a primer on physics, but as a springboard that will vault the reader into any intellectual exploration he or she finds interesting, even into an area you may have written off in the 11th grade. In short, start with Black Bodies, and don’t stop!

hunter close, adjunct professor of physics

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