How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog

Book review by Andrea Marie Cini

The term quantum physics has struck fear into many hearts. Such a complex subject has, for many years, dumbfounded students, and, it seems, their dogs alike. Chad Orzel (a professor at Union College,New York) in his book, How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog, tries to accomplish just that; how do you explain sub-atomic physics in a fun and easy way? Using his dog Emmy as a fellow narrator, Orzel explains quantum physics from a different, more canine-oriented perspective, and actually manages to make it work!

Making use of situations that dogs encounter on a nearly daily basis, such as rabbit chasings, evil squirrels and squeaky toys, the author explains some of the most complex theories and experiments in science. Sound bites as particle-wave duality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and quantum tunnelling are just a few of the many topics covered and are colourfully explained within this book. Making use of simple diagrams and modern references, these previously baffling topics are simplified in a way even a dog could understand (if dogs were capable of learning science—debatable). Orzel’s ideology is pretty simple: if a dog could understand his explanations then a human surely would.

Apart from being a sturdy foundation for the topic of quantum physics, the fun-loving and comical conversations between Orzel and Emmy the dog are a captivating read. Emmy’s curious questions and Orzel’s exceptionally patient answers make it almost impossible for readers to forget. Within this novel it feels as if the reader is really strolling in a park with the duo. Apart from this professor’s incredible explanations and handy diagrams, another distinguishable feature of his book is the fascinating footnotes—a source of unforgettable fun facts. For example, did you know that the great scientist, Schrödinger, was a notorious womaniser?

While I would not recommend How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog to pass the next quantum mechanics exam, it is great foundation material. Studying quantum physics has never been more fun and the book is a great read—highly recommended.

Tesla: Inventor of the electric age

Book Review

 

Nikola Tesla is everywhere. We have Tesla AC power generation and supply, remotely operated vehicles, and he inspired radio and wireless power. In this book historian W. Bernard Carlson meticulously goes through the thought processes of how Tesla came up with these inventions, but also examines his great failures and repeated dips into depression.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book Review

Over 60 Best Book of the Year lists, 75 weeks on the New York Best Sellers list, and several prestigious awards, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a must read for all. I don’t usually review 4-year old books, but this non-fiction book has it all: race and class issues, betrayal, loss, education and healthcare access, exploitation, and lucidly told science.Continue reading

Dreamland

Book Review

David K. Randall woke up on his back, his leg bent at an awkward angle, in excruciating pain. To figure out why, he wrote a book about the science of sleep. Clever. Clever doubles as a nice summary of the book.

Another book summary: sleep rules your life. Get a good night’s sleep or else everything suffers: your creativity, memory, attitude, ability to think straight, control your emotions, react to emergencies, sex life, and work. Lack of sleep has cost lives; to sleep is to live.

An extreme statement but Randall holds a very good argument. Zlatko Glusica, an Air India pilot, woke up just before landing and tried to bring a plane down safely with a sluggish brain whose higher brain functions were down. In this state we might talk to lamps, Glusica instead killed himself and 157 others. Lack of sleep and truck drivers are another bad idea, while battles have been lost because of sleep. Sleep prevents disasters.

“Randall covers an immense range of research and topics. This is where the book’s problems start. He did a lot of research and wants us to know that.”

The book is well researched. Randall fires factoid after research study at the reader in a pleasant easy to read style. You’ll learn about the dangers of the first sleeping pill that is now a 30 billion dollar industry, how one in five sleepwalk, and how one in four middle aged men have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea happens when the airway collapses in either obese people or those with a narrowed throat. A minute can pass before the sufferer briefly wakes up and desperately gulps down some oxygen. Most apnea patients are unaware of their condition. It leads to disrupted sleep and less productivity, memory loss, and heart attacks. Sufferers can use a simple device that gently pushes air into the lungs as an instant cure.

The book is filled with great advice like the above. It’s simple, without hocus pocus, and doesn’t need overly expensive equipment. Relax. Don’t try to sleep too hard. Your brain must disassociate itself from the rest of your body. Don’t drink alcohol or coffee. Expose yourself to light, but not late at night, at night dim lights, avoid screens. Don’t sleep too hot or too cold, the body is meant to cool after 10 pm — let it. Exercise. Simple.

Randall covers an immense range of research and topics. This is where the book’s problems start. He did a lot of research and wants us to know that. At other times, he rambles. A stricter editor would have helped the book.

The author only glosses over hardcore scientific studies. He mentions some science behind daily rhythms in Chapter 9. The book only has 13 chapters. He hardly even mentions the genes or molecular biology related to sleep. The scientist inside me died a little death. There are some amazing stories he missed out on by focusing on the lighter human studies.

Don’t take the above too harshly. Dreamland is a great book to learn more about sleep, just avoid late night tablet reading. You have been warned.

 

Bad Pharma

Book Review

The author Dr Ben Goldacre is on a mission. The $600 billion pharmaceutical industry, some doctors, regulators, medical journals, and whole governments should be trembling. Goldacre wants to show the truth behind how our medicines are made. He wants transparent companies, properly informed patients, solid research, and cheap, effective drugs, preferably for all.

In typical Goldacre style, he rants. Ignore the apparent chip on his shoulder. His statements are thoroughly based on facts. The facts are shockingly scary.

Take the drug Tamiflu, the supposed miracle cure for flu. The pharmaceutical company Roche made over €500 million in 2009 on the back of the swine flu scare. The drug is known to reduce flu symptoms by a few hours, a hefty price tag for a spot of relief. Initially, Roche said that it reduces complications by 68%, amazing! Though when the gold standard reviewer Cochrane started scratching the surface they hit a brick wall. Roche refuses to publish data requested years ago and we still do not know how effective it is.

Even regulators get it wrong by being too business friendly or opaque. Diabetes drug Rosiglitazone was recently taken off the market after over 10 years of intimidating researchers who published data against the drug in 1999. Rosiglitazone increases heart problems by 43%. Regulators failed to share data transparently, which slowed action, an endemic problem.

Pharma has even failed cancer patients by stopping trials early to make drugs look better. Trials can also be run longer than needed to fuzz data. Goldacre lists endless examples to buttress his arguments. 

Companies spend double on marketing drugs compared to research. In the US they can reach and influence consumers directly irrespective of efficacy, price, or need. Where direct marketing is banned, companies shift budgets and reach doctors through drug reps, people whose job it is to convince medics that their company’s drug is the best. Pharma even disguises marketing as research fooling doctors and wasting their time. Well-respected doctors are also paid handsomely to talk about products.

Apart from scandalous facts, Goldacre is a master of explaining science simply and clearly. Chapter 2 has a great introduction on how drugs are made. He clearly explains the difference between relative risk or absolute risk, or how bias and probability are manipulated by pharmaceuticals. His lucid style makes this book a great read and well recommended for anyone wanting to know the dirty secrets behind pill manufacturing. 

Thankfully, Goldacre also suggests how it could be solved. My only advice is not to debunk the whole system when reading this book, remember the good stuff: life-saving antibiotics, disease eradicating vaccines and much more. The current system just needs some serious tweaking to remove the bad loop holes Big Pharma exploit to meet profit margins. But drug research has to go on.