Smart Science Writing from a 'Physics Phobe' Jennifer Ouellette's new book is Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, subtitled "Tales from the Annals of Physics." The author tells Liane Hansen she hopes readers will see that physics is more than a cold, hard discipline: It has emotional content.
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Smart Science Writing from a 'Physics Phobe'

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Smart Science Writing from a 'Physics Phobe'

Smart Science Writing from a 'Physics Phobe'

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From the outer reaches of the universe to deep inside an atom, our world is governed by the laws of physics, yet how many of us avoid the subject because it's just too daunting, mainly because it deals in complex theoretical and mathematical concepts.

Jennifer Ouellette is a self-described physics-phobe who couldn't tell a quark from a cathode ray. After avoiding the subject for more than 25 years, she stumbled into science writing as a freelance journalist and began to explore the fundamentals of physics from a cultural and historical perspective.

Now an established science writer, Jennifer Ouellette wants us to understand that rather than being a cold, hard discipline, physics has emotional content. Her new book is called Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Tales from the Annals of Physics, and she's in our studio here in Washington. Welcome.

Ms. JENNIFER OUELLETTE (Freelance Journalist and Author, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Tales from the Annals of Physics): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: What was it exactly that cured you of your physics phobia?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Well, that's a very funny story, actually. I was working for the American Physical Society back when they had their offices in New York City, and in the course of that job, which was pretty much administrative assistant and doing some writing on the side, I ran into a lot of Nobel laureates. And I was very intimidated by them. These were brilliant men. They'd done these groundbreaking studies that had changed the world.

And one day, I walk into the Xerox room and there were literally three Nobel laureates standing around the Xerox machine going, do we press start? And what it told me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OUELLETTE: ...is that the key is unfamiliarity. If we're not familiar with something, we fear it. And that was certainly the case with me and physics.

HANSEN: Leonardo da Vinci, a 16th century artist, scientist, he can be connected in your book to a very modern product, Leonardo da Vinci and Ready Whip.

Ms. OUELLETTE: Leonardo da Vinci and Ready Whip.

HANSEN: He, you're right, was interested in the properties of foam.

Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes. He studied bubbles. He didn't have a great deal of means for studying bubbles. Bubbles are very ephemeral, which is why they're so difficult to study. I mean they're there for a moment, you enjoy them and they're gone. It's a bit like sound. Today we can record a sound and go back and study its properties. It's much harder to do it with bubbles, so he pretty much had to sit there next to a stream and watch the bubbles form and write down his observations based on that.

HANSEN: So why was Ready Whip considered one of the historical milestones of physics?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Well, I think it was just kind of a fun way to get into the subject of foam. We actually don't know as much as we think we do about bubbles. I mean it's still a very active area of research. We know the basics about surface tension, we know how we make bubbles, we know about surfactants and whipping things up and why it forms that nice yummy foam, but we don't actually know how bubbles closely pack together. We don't necessarily know how they behave under certain extremes and that kind of, understanding those material's properties means that we really can't exploit that material as much as we would like.

HANSEN: So who or what is the quantum cat?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Quantum cat is that famous Schrödinger's cat. It's something that's very frequently misunderstood. I've actually had a couple of people at readings ask how a cat can be both dead and alive at the same time, because they have cats and their cats are very much alive and they sort of miss the point of the thought experiment. He envisioned a box and you take a cat and you put it in the box along with a vial of cyanide and a radioactive element, and as that element decays, if it decays beyond a certain point, it will set off a detector and then it will trigger like a little hammer. It will smash the vial of cyanide, the cyanide will be released, the cat will die. The trick question, of course, is that we have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead until they open the box and look. But until we look, philosophically speaking the cat sort of inhabitants two super-imposed states. And obviously there's no way this actually happens at the macro scale, but the irony is at the subatomic scale that really is how it works, and Schrödinger's thought experiment was really designed to demonstrate the absurdity of that, that everything that we seem to know doesn't, it just goes all haywire when you take it down to the subatomic scale.

HANSEN: We're really just skimming the surface of this book, which has many chapters and many different things, you know, from Velcro to the physics in the atom's family. Do you see physics at work everywhere now? In other words, you go to the movies, do you find yourself looking at it through kind of a physics' lens?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes, actually, and it can be a little tiresome for people who are with me. I mean, I can't even look at a sand pile now without going, ooh, self-organized criticality, and then I have to explain what that means.

HANSEN: Right, right. But on the other hand, making physics real and emotional and having more to it than just mathematical formulas.

Ms. OUELLETTE: Exactly, because math still is not my favorite. I jokingly refer to myself as mathematically enumerate. I did very well in math, but it was never my favorite subject and one of the reasons I think is because I never really saw it connected to the real world. That was another reason I feared physics. I think if I learned it in the context of some of these physics principles with real-world applications, it would've made a huge difference for me and I hope that it's making that difference now, because ultimately it's all about making those vital connections.

HANSEN: Jennifer Ouellette is the author of Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Tales from the Annals of Physics. It's published by Penguin Publishing and she joined us here in our studio in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

Ms. OUELLETTE: Well, thanks for having me.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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