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Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics First Edition Edition

20 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0143036036
ISBN-10: 0143036033
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sg/jsAn English major turned science writer, Ouellette describes physics, that most mathematically demanding science, using books, TV shows, movies and other pop culture mainstays, and the result is remarkably fresh and immensely readable. Starting with Da Vinci, Ouellette uses-what else?-The Da Vinci Code to explain the divine proportion before taking the reader on an anecdotal tour of the blacksmiths, shopkeepers' sons and royalty who tinkered with their curiosities, cumulatively advancing a science from Copernicus' looking at the sky, through Einstein's theory of special relativity (explained in terms of Back to the Future and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen), until today's subatomic string theory. All major theories and breakthroughs, along with the personalities that brought them to life (including a particularly ruthless Thomas Edison and a resourceful patent clerk named Chester Carlson, who built the first photocopier in his Astoria, New York, kitchen), are presented clearly by the reader's pop-culture escort. It is a credit to Ouellette that, as the reader progresses into more complex theories, the TV and movie references aren't nearly as interesting as the science.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Although she is a self-described "physics phobe," literature major Ouellette writes a monthly column for the American Physical Society's magazine. And she's good at it. Readers of these 50 pieces will feel her companionship as a fellow layperson sharing her interest in physics history. Hooking the audience with some movie or sf novel, Ouellette delves into the real physics behind a literary device. For example, her article about special relativity plays off Marty McFly's time trip in Back to the Future; Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon prefaces the tale of Robert Goddard's rocket. Several pages in length, each article stands alone, and the funny slang titles compete for attention: what will one read first, "That Darn Cat" (about Schrodinger's famous cat) or "Copy That" (about Chester Carlson, inventor of the photocopier)? Arranged chronologically from Leonardo da Vinci (tied to The Da Vinci Code) to the top quark (introduced via My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Ouellette's entertaining explications of physics encourage generalists to give physics a try. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; First Edition edition (December 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143036033
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143036036
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,855 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm an English major turned science writer, through serendipitous accident. It's been a wild ride since I first dipped a toe into physics, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I've written articles about molecular mixology, eggshell physics, black holes, the game theory of poker, pseudoscience, fractal patterns in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the science of yodeling, and the acoustics of Mayan pyramids, among other colorful topics, for places like The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Slate, Mental Floss, New Scientist, Discover, Salon, and Nature. I maintain a science-and-culture blog at Scientific American called Cocktail Party Physics. The latter is my "writers laboratory," where I explore new topics and ways to communicate science. That's also how I met my husband, Caltech cosmologist Sean M. Carroll, author of the fabulous "The Particle at the End of the Universe" and "From Eternity To Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time").

I've written four popular science books, aimed at readers like me (non-specialists who appreciate stories with their science). The most recent is "Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self," detailing my quest to illuminate everything that goes into shaping the people we become. Other books: "The Calculus Diaries : How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse;" "The Physics of the Buffyverse"; and "Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics." I also edited the 2012 anthology "The Best Online Science Writing."

From November 2008 through October 2010, I was director of the National Academy of Sciences' program, The Science & Entertainment Exchange, founded to foster creative collaborations between scientists and the entertainment industry: I like to think I made a difference, but I also got to meet Ridley Scott. So that's a win-win in my book.

You can read more about me at my Website:, and at my blog:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Jen Oko on January 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever understand the first thing about string theory, much less about cosmic microwaves-- but eager to improve my brain a bit, I recently picked up a copy of Black Bodies and Quantum cats. Now, thanks to this immensely enjoyable book, I am happy to report that for the first time in my life I might actually be able to hold a coherent conversation about these and more. By presenting some of the most challenging ideas imagineable within cultural (and even pop cultural) contexts, and writing about them with wit and humor, Ouellette has done the near impossible -- she's made physics fun for the lay person... fun, and, dare I say, maybe even a little bit sexy. I imagine that even if you did have a better grasp of physics than I did prior to picking up this book, you would find it to be an extremely entertaining, smart, and very humorous refresher course.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Mark on April 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Jennifer Ouellette and Albert Einstein would have made great contemporaries. While Einstein was amusing himself with questions like "I wonder what would happen if I was driving a car at the speed of light and I turned my headlights on," Ouellette gets similar inspiration from backyard oddities.
When I first heard of this book, I assumed it was another treatise on Schrodinger's famed cat hypothesis. Instead, it's an incredible look at physics through real world concepts that are familiar and easy to grasp.
More and more physicists are learning to share their knowledge with an audience that is not necessarily made up of scientific scholars. Joe Six Pack has an innate curiousity about the lofty questions of existance and the universe around him. Theorists and physicists are finally coming to understand that. They are writing for that wide-eyed audience these days instead of for teh scientific community expressly.
Science can only benefit from this growing interest in matters that were once exclusive to the men and women who worked in labs and huddled together in lecture halls. Ouellette, with her writing background, is perfect for the job of bringing complex matters, like quantum mechanics, out of the classrooms and into the populace. She has an eye for science and a beautiful way with the language. Those attributes are great for people who want to know as much as they can about emerging science, but who will likely never be enrolled at MIT.
Writers like Ouellette, Brian Green and Michio Kaku are opening up the world of physics to an expanding list of readers and that's good for everybody. With the analogies and thought experiments offered up in "Black Bodies and Quantum Cats," even laymen like myself and Joe Six Pack can sound reasonably smart when we're hanging around the bars and trying to impress our fellow drinkers. This book is an instant winner for those with even a passing interest in physics.
-- Mark LaFlamme, author of "The Pink Room."
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By James R. Riordon on March 23, 2006
Format: Paperback
I studied physics in school, but I still enjoy reading popular physics books for fun from time to time (I know, what a nerd!). One of the best things about this one is the inclusion of fascinating historical insights that bring people like Tesla to life (on the page anyway). "Black Bodies and Quantum Cats" is a fun read that is ideal for casual science fans and budding scientists alike. I highly recommend it, and I am going to give copies to all my nieces and nephews to show them that physics is much more than equations on a chalk board.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Shari D. on April 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
I found this a curiously fun sort of read-different from my usual choice of reading entertainment. I don't typically read science books, mostly because I'm lazy and don't want to work at understanding something really technical (many science writers put off the general public by delving too deeply), but hey folks, the author makes the science easy to grasp. And the writing style is witty, light and intelligent. Ouellette has a gift for marrying science, history and storytelling.

What's especially appealing is the way the author connects seemingly esoteric science with our everyday life-Reddi-whip (the physics of foam), velcro (biomimicry)-and illuminates the process by which scientists and inventors impact our lives. I loved the references to literature and pop culture that segue into the science or serve as examples of the science in action.

There's something for everyone. Science fans will get an enlightening and lively look into the history and people behind the discoveries. Those more interested in history will learn a thing or two about the science (painlessly). And old English majors, like me, will appreciate the storytelling.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth W. on February 13, 2006
Format: Paperback
I've read a number of "popular science" books and would rate this among the best. The variety of topics covered make it an ideal resource for science teachers as well as a good pick for gym-readers and others that get frustrated with the amount of time and effort required to follow many popular science books. Ouellette's style is entertaining and her enthusiasm for discovery and understanding is contagious. This book is a refreshing detour from those that require 250 pages of background reading before you reach the main topic.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David R. Ingham on August 18, 2012
Format: Paperback
Some chapters may be correct, but some have glaring errors. For example, it says a microscope has a concave and a convex lens. Maybe dissecting microscopes work like Galilean telescopes or maybe the first ones were did, but the main lenses in an ordinary compound microscope are both convex. An image formed by the objective is viewed through the eye piece. A concave lens does not "gather light". Later in this chapter she confuses single atom resolution and the size of a human hair.
More than once she says that light traveling in straight lines is a particle property. The straightness of the lines is described by Maxwell's wave equations. Geometric optics includes no wave properties nor particle properties.
As Schrodinger's cat is related, the radioactive sample is only one atom of Uranium. U235, the shorter lived natural isotope has a half life of 703,800,000 years, after which little evidence would remain of how long the cat lived.
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