Book Reviews

Breakfast with Einstein (review) & author interview! // learning about “exotic” physics ☕️

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All throughout high school, I was convinced I wanted to study engineering. However, as you probably already know, that plan didn’t end up coming true. But since I never fully dropped my interest in science, I was super excited to pick this book up. And I even got a chance to interview the man who wrote it!

Title: Breakfast with Einstein
Author: Chad Orzel
Genre: nonfiction, science
Published on December 11, 2018 by BenBella Books
Page count: 272 pages
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

☕️ s y n o p s i s ☕️

Despite the common opinion that quantum physics is “hopelessly esoteric,” Orzel argues that this field is always present everywhere. Everyone’s morning routine is connected to the quantum world — from the moment your alarm clock beeps to the moment you savor the aroma of your cup of coffee. Breakfast with Einstein takes readers on a tour of the quantum physics world as he explains the basics of it, and shows how numerous brilliant scientists revolutionized the world.

Goodreads  ⭐️  Amazon  ⭐️  Book Depository

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As I’ve mentioned, I got the chance to get in touch with Chad Orzel himself. When I proposed to do an author interview, I was a third into the book and loving it. So it was only logical that when the publicist contacted me about an author feature I’d say yes. And so I bring you today, gals and pals, my first author interview of the year!

 

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Photo credits: Kate Nepveu

Chad Orzel is an American Associate Professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He teaches a variety of different classes and does research on atomic, molecular, and optic physics.
Orzel also writes books about science. His debut nonfiction book, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, came out in 2009 and has received a lot of positive reviews from readers. His other works include How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist

Here are the questions I got to ask the author!

☕️  From my experience, interest in science starts to fade in middle school. When it comes to choosing a study path here in Portugal in the 10th grade, most people jump the math and physics boat. Why do you think that is?

As kids, most of us are interested in absolutely everything, but as we get older, we inevitably tend to focus in a bit, usually on those subjects that best suit our personality and individual abilities. At around that time, the teaching of academic subjects also tends to become a bit more specialized — science classes become less about gee-whiz conceptual stuff and more about math; reading classes become less about the simple act of reading whatever you enjoy and more focused on reading and analyzing particular types of literature, etc.

Which gets you a bit of a feedback loop all the way around — people who are inclined to enjoy doing the things that make a good scientist focus in on those skills and get better at them, and that makes them more interested, and so on, while people who don’t like those things do less of them, and then find math and science at higher levels intimidating and are less likely to pursue them. Similarly, people who don’t find the modes of thought needed for literary analysis congenial will tend to lose interest in those subjects, and often become less adept at reading and interpreting texts the way a literature student would.

That’s all perfectly fine, and natural. The thing that’s a problem is that as a society, we have collectively decided to bracket off math and science in a way that’s unhealthy, and that doesn’t have a parallel in the literary world. Professional scientists and mathematicians often maintain an amateur interest in “the humanities”: they relax by reading fiction, listening to music, and visiting art museums. It’s much less common for people who aren’t interested in math and science to maintain an amateur interest in those subjects, and often seen as weird. Science is seen as something for professional science nerds, and not something that people who can’t do it for a living naturally take an interest in.

That’s the aspect of the situation that I think is a real problem. Students moving out of the professional-track study of math and science isn’t any more a problem than students moving out of the professional-track study of art and literature is. What’s problematic is that students moving out of the professional-track study of math and science also tend to abandon the amateur-level study of these subjects, and we collectively accept and excuse that abandonment of science in a way that we don’t for arts and literature. If you encounter someone in educated society who says they don’t read or listen to music, most people will look askance at that, but if somebody says they’re “not a science person,” all the literature professors nod along in sympathy. That makes it easier to abandon any interest in science, and thus it’s no surprise that people do.

☕️  What can we do to make students more interested in sciences in general and in STEM fields?

On the science side, a lot of what needs to be done is being done — science teaching at all levels is much more engaging than it was when I was a kid, as we’ve learned that more interactive engagement with the subject leads to better learning for future physicists as well as future physicists. Much of the remaining effort needs to be made outside of the school context: making sure we’re not sending signals to our kids that tell them science is boring and confusing and something only nerds study. That’s a tricky thing to do, because kids are really good at picking up subtle clues about adult attitudes.

 

☕️  I think books such as yours bring awareness to how relevant physics are. What other books do you recommend to people who don’t have a background in science to get them more interested in it?

We’re in a bit of a golden age of pop-science writing, so it’s often possible to find books tailored toward the particular interests of any individual reader — there’s stuff like Jim Kakalios’s The Physics of Superheroes for comic-book readers, or Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s The Physics of NASCAR for racing enthusiasts, etc. Those are often a good entry point.

For general non-scientist readers, I often recommend books that weave science into a personal story. Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is a really interesting mix of scientific explanation and personal memoir, centered around her relationship with her father and their shared quest to understand quantum physics through the work of John Wheeler. There are also some really good books with a historical bent — David Lindley’s Uncertainty is a highly readable narrative about the making of quantum mechanics in the period from around 1910-1930, and Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement covers a lot of the same ground with an unconventional approach that presents imaginary “conversations” between the principal figures in quantum history with the words reconstructed from their letters and papers. There are also some really novel books out there these days, like the graphic presentation of quantum philosophy in Jeff and Tanya Bub’s Totally Random.

 

☕️ Is there a specific person you look up to?

My Ph.D. thesis advisor was Bill Phillips, who won a share of the 1997 Nobel in physics and is obviously one of the best scientists around. He’s also an amazingly good person, generous with his time and energy and always happy to talk to people about science, or just about anything else. Most of the good tricks I know about effective public speaking I picked up from Bill (who will modestly say that he got them from other people…), and I try my best to be as kind and patient with people asking questions as he is.

 

☕️ And lastly, what is your favorite topic to teach as a university professor?

This comes and goes a bit, but I consistently enjoy teaching the class I’m doing this term, the increasingly misnamed “Modern Physics.” It’s a course aimed at physics majors that introduces the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics — so, stuff developed between about 1900 and about 1950. It’s basically the material I write books about, but with a bit of math, too, so it’s a nice mix of everything I do.

I tend to enjoy pretty much any course the second or third time I teach it — the first pass usually has a few bugs in it, and can be a bit stressful. The second time around I usually have a better grip on what I need to do, and where students will need extra help, so that iteration is more fun.

About the fourth time through the same class, though, I start to get bored with it, so I usually have to either switch to teaching something else for a bit, or throw away all my notes and start fresh with a new approach. I’m constantly changing things in the intro classes in particular — what demos I do, how I handle grades, etc. — just so the material remains relatively fresh. It’s a fun challenge to find new ways to do things; I also get a lot of ideas from folks in the physics education community on Twitter.

 

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Aren’t these such amazing answers?? I especially agree with the first one… Now, onto my review!

What I liked the most about this book was the innovative concept behind it all — that quantum physics can be experienced in the most varied (and common) ways. Since each chapter begins with a short narration of the author’s morning routine, you can really see how each quantum phenomenon connects with your own life. I thought this was a very strong aspect of the book, as it makes science seem a little less scary in the end!

At the same time, however, I wish the author had drawn a stronger connection between the every day and physics. Because some chapters were sort of longer and denser, it was easy for me to forget what everyday event had started the entire thing in the first place. This was by no means something that put me off reading Breakfast with Einstein — just something I thought could have been done better to pull readers in.

Another strong point of this book was its mix of scientific explanations and the history behind the quantum physics world. There isn’t a single chapter that just explains to you how or why a certain thing happens. The author is sure to also throw you into the past so you can understand how these ideas were discovered. I thought this was a great addition to the book since it paints the science field as cooperative and not as an area of study where people are completely isolated from each other. It was so cool seeing the field and the ideas evolve…

If I had to point a fault at this book is that it can be quite dense… If you’re like me and you haven’t studied physics in a while, Breakfast with Einstein will be sort of hard to get through. You can tell that the author really did his best to make the subject matter interesting and less heavy and technical, as he throws in some funny sentences and facts in there. However, it still feels like this is a technical book — especially for people like me who are not in the science field.

All in all… I think this is a great book for people who already have some knowledge of physics. While it’s not the most accessible book for beginners, it’s a great way to get more into reading popular science books!

 

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I recommend this book to…

 

⇒ People who are passionate about science and already know quite a bit
 Readers who want to learn more about quantum physics — and don’t mind language that is a little more technical than usual
 Anyone who loves the popular science genre!

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Disclaimer: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are true and my own.

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2 thoughts on “Breakfast with Einstein (review) & author interview! // learning about “exotic” physics ☕️

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