Teaching Your Dog New...Tricks??
Written by Ava   


Most of us would probably sit down with a comrade or a co-worker to talk topics like science, history, relationships, culture, etc. 

Chad Orzel is not one of them. Instead, he finds man's best friend the best--er--person? to share ideas with. 

His dog Emmy, a mixed-breed canine, is perhaps Chad's best listener as he rolls off ideas to her and explains the unexplainable--quantum physics!  

It's become so normal for her to sit down with her and--er--HEAR her thoughts that he's taken to including her in his blog, Uncertain Principles, and writing a book about their conversations.

We're lucky to have both Chad and Emmy here to shoot the breeze, relay their story, share pet care tips, and of course, tote the perks of quantum physics (which begs the question, are there any?) 

Chad commences with a resounding yes, followed by Emmy's bark of approval.

Chad, tell me about your background in Physics?

I went to college at Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating with a BA in Physics with honors. My senior thesis there was about laser cooling of rubidium, and that got me interested in atomic physics, so I went to grad school in the Chemical Physics Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. My Ph.D. thesis was on collisions in laser-cooled samples of xenon, and all the lab work was done in the group of Bill Phillips at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). While I was there, Bill shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Steven Chu, who is now the Energy Secretary for the Obama administration), which had nothing to do with my research, but was really cool.

After getting my doctorate, I worked for two years as a post-doctoral associate at Yale, studying Bose-Einstein Condensates (BEC) in rubidium. Both at NIST and at Yale, the research I did was focused on weird quantum effects. One of the main papers in my thesis work looked at how the quantum character of atoms can dramatically alter collisions, through the Pauli Exclusion Principle (more or less). The work we did at Yale was about how the Uncertainty Priciple affects the process of dividing a BEC up into smaller pieces, and how you can manipulate the properties of those pieces.

In 2001, I joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, NY. I have a lab on campus where I do laser cooling experiments, trying to trap and detect single atoms of krypton as a way to measure radioactive impurities in giant particle detectors.

Who is Emmy?

Emmy is a mixed-breed dog (German Shepherd and something small with floppy ears) who we picked up at the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society in Troy, NY. She's about seven years old, and settling into a dignified middle age, though she still enjoys chasing bunnies and squirrels in the back yard and on walks.

Her original owners turned her in because of allergies (according to the tag on her kennel). They had named her "Princess," which didn't seem to match her appearance, so we changed it to "Emmy." She took this as a sign that she was promoted from Princess to Queen, and behaves accordingly.

[Emmy speaks for herself]

Emmy: Typical. He writes all this stuff about me, and forgets to mention the most important part, which is that I'm the best. I'm way better than those inferior dogs. Who aren't me.

Any tips on how to take care of a dog like Emmy?

Emmy's fairly low-maintenance, as dogs go. She was already housebroken when we got her, and we've never had a problem with that. She does have a slightly sensitive stomach (apparently a German Shepherd trait), which tends to get upset if she goes too long without eating. She exploits this shamelessly.

In general, I highly recommend adopting mixed-breed dogs from local shelters. You can find some really great dogs that way, without the expense and hassle of dealing with purebreds, who often have a lot of problems.

Emmy: How do you take care of a dog like me? By giving me lots of treats. Like cheese, and steak. And peanut butter. Also, lots of walks. Preferably with bunnies to chase. I like bunnies!

How would you describe your blog and Emmy’s involvement in it?

I started the blog in 2002 (a successor of sorts to a book log that I had started in 2001) as a place to share my thoughts about physics, politics, pop culture, and whatever else caught my fancy. We got Emmy a little over a year later, and she made her first appearance on the blog a few months later (See here.)

The conversations with her about physics started more or less randomly, with the "Bunnies Made of Cheese" post. I wrote that because some friends were writing odd things for "Down the Rabbit Hole Day," and I taught it would be amusingly surreal to talk with Emmy about quantum electro-dynamics. That was reasonably popular, so I repeated it a few months later (Many Worlds, Many Treats). That one got picked up by Boing Boing, and 50,000 people read it, leading directly to the book.

Emmy: The blog is ok and all, but I'm the one that really make it work. He's all "Blah, blah, physics, blah, blah, academia, blah, blah, blah." What people want is more of me! They put up with the physics stuff in order to get cute dog pictures.

You choose to use a common household pet as a way to relate the complicated world of quantum physics to the average person. Why go that route?

It wasn't consciously planned-- the whole thing came about by accident, really-- but once I started doing it, I found that it's a really effective way to approach some of the weirder topics in physics. Quantum physics is really, really strange, and people can find it hard going, but if you look at it from a dog's perspective, it's really not much weirder than anything else they deal with. It's hard to get your head around the idea of particle-wave duality, which is one of the central features of quantum mechanics, but a dog has trouble figuring out a purely classical object like a doorknob.

The world of a dog is an endless source of surprise and wonder-- no matter how many times we walk by the stone wall at the corner of our street, Emmy will stop and sniff it like she was seeing it for the first time-- and that puts her in a good position with respect to physics. If you approach quantum mechanics as a source of surprising and amazing new phenomena, rather than an arcane and difficult obstacle to be overcome, it's a lot easier to get into the theory and how it works.

Emmy: It shouldn't be surprising that I can help relate physics stuff to the average human. After all, I am an _exceptional_ dog, which puts me way ahead of average readers.

I think if more humans knew how useful quantum physics can be in catching bunnies and getting treats, they would be more interested in learning about it. It helps to have a goal. And bunnies make a very good goal.

What do pets provide that perhaps people can’t?


The great thing about having a dog is the uncomplicated joy they take in everything. Other people sometimes have bad days, and are hard to cheer up, but Emmy is always happy to see me, and happy to go for a walk, play fetch with some squeaky toys, or just flop next to the couch and get her belly rubbed.

Emmy: Pets? Well, humans are a lot of work to take care of, but it's really worth it when you can take them on a good long walk, and maybe chase a couple of critters. Also, they can open doors, and food containers, so they're useful to have around.

Anything special you do with Emmy besides verbalize your affinity for quantum physics?

The usual: walks, treats, fetch, belly-rubs. We carry on conversations about a lot of different things, with me providing her half in a silly voice, because it makes my wife, Kate, laugh.

Emmy's currently trying to teach the baby to drop food on the floor, though with only limited success.

Words of advice for fellow pet owners?

If you're looking to get a dog, I'd recommend visiting your local animal shelter, as you can find lots of great dogs there. And take walks with your dog-- every now and then, I see people who just leave their dogs penned up in the yard, and that's just sad. Get out, see the neighborhood, and get a bit of exercise. Yeah, it's a drag sometimes, especially when it rains, but it's better for both of you.

Emmy: Treats. Lots and lots of treats. Also, don't trust the squirrels. They're up to no good.

Before it became a book, what were your Teaching Physics to Your Dog entries like on your blog, Uncertain Principles?


Weirdly, there were only two entries before it became a book project. There were a handful of other conversations, about squirrels or politics and things like that, but only the two physics posts. There have been a bunch since, though. I've done three or four on relativity, which isn't in the current book, but might be something for the future.

Tell us about your book How To Teach Physics to Your Dog.

The book consists of ten chapters, each starting with a conversation Emmy and I have had about some aspect of quantum mechanics, usually involving some scheme of hers to use quantum physics to catch prey animals. For example, in Chapter 1 she wants to use her wave nature to run around both sides of a pond at the same time, and trap bunnies between herself, while in Chapter 8 she hopes to use quantum teleportation to catch squirrels before they can get to the trees and escape. After that, there's a more straightforward explanation of the real physics involved, for interested dogs and humans.

Emmy adds: Of course, those explanations are all confusing and stuff, but I help out. We read over the book together, and I pointed out all the places where he left stuff out, and he put my comments in. They're the best part of the book, if I do say so myself.
10. Now I hear you’re doing a caption writing and poetry contest on your blog for the chance to win an advanced copy of the book.  Tell us all about that.

The book won't officially be released until December 22nd, but I have a couple of extra galley proofs (the sort of thing that the publisher sends to people who might provide cover blurbs) that I'm giving away. Of course, I can't just give them away for nothing-- as any dog knows, you need to do a trick to get a treat. So, I'm running two contests to decide on the two people who will get galley proof copies.

The first contest is a photo caption contest. I've put up two pictures of Emmy with some physics apparatus in my lab, and the best caption for one or both of the pictures will win an advance copy of the book.

The other contest is a poetry contest. Contestants should submit a short poem of some type (haiku, limerick, double dactyl, whatever) that involves both dogs and physics. The author of the best poem will also win an advance copy of the book.

Submissions for both contests are open until Sunday, June 28th. The winners will be chosen by the population of Chateau Steelypips: me, Kate, Emmy, and the baby (who we call "SteelyKid" online, so her name isn't instantly Google-able). Of course, some of those people get more votes than others.

Emmy: Yeah, the human puppy knows nothing about poetry. Actually, I don't really get poetry, either, but I know more than the human puppy. So I get two votes. Maybe three.

Can we go for a walk, now?

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