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

By Jennifer Ouellette

A history of physics for armchair scientists and other curious readers

Physics, once known as "natural philosophy," is the most basic science, explaining the world we live in, from the largest scale down to the very, very, very smallest, and our understanding of it has changed over many centuries. In Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, science writer Jennifer Ouellette traces key developments in the field, setting descriptions of the fundamentals of physics in their historical context, as well as against a broad cultural backdrop.

Newton's laws are illustrated via the film Addams Family Values, while Back to the Future demonstrates the finer points of special relativity. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" serves to illuminate the mysterious nature of neutrinos, and Jeanette Winterson's novel Gut Symmetries provides an elegant metaphorical framework for string theory. An enchanting and edifying read, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats shows that physics is not an arcane field of study but a profoundly human endeavor, and a fundamental part of our everyday world.

Barnes and Noble
Indie Bound

Here's what people are saying about Black Bodies and Quantum Cats:

"... bursts with answers for curious adults... Ouellette shines when she pulls analogies from real life to explain, for example, why blackouts are more likely since the deregulation of the power industry... [I]n prose that is engaging and economical..."- Washington Post Book World

"... [Ouellette's] delightful history of scientific principles and her pop-culture speckled explanation of physics from, well, quantum cats to string theory soothes the inner science geek and enlightens the curious." - Washington Post Express

"... remarkably fresh and immensely readable..." - Publishers Weekly

" entertaining guide to the history of physics that should interest science buffs.ĘScientists can have fun with the book, too, getting acquainted with the Addams family and other staples of pop culture." - Phillip Manning, San Francisco Chronicle

"... fuses whimsical pop-culture references with important lessons about the concepts of physics in such a way that you can't help thinking that she'd be the most awesomely cool science teacher since Mr. Kerber kicked it old-school in Better Off Dead." - DCist

"Ouellette writes with an engaging informality. Her style is conversational rather than merely breezy, painstakingly lucid rather than irresponsibly simplified. She can write as clearly about nuclear fission as about nanotechnology. ... Readers will close this book with an invigorating sense of having spent a weekend with a fascinating and very lively companion." - Michael Sims, author of Adam's Navel [for Book Page]

"[A]n engaging overview of key advances in physics from the early 1500s to today. ...Ouellette's method of drawing interesting and sometimes vaguely weird parallels between snippets of pop culture and physics... keeps the reader captivated." - Library Journal Review [starred review]

"Ouellette's entertaining explications of physics encourage generalists to give physics a try." - Booklist

"It's a masterful mix of theory and practice, facts and fun stuff, and the result is a highly readable text that will teach readers about physics in a manner that goes beyond useful to enjoyable and memorable." - Bookselling This Week

"To Jennifer Ouellette, physics is more human and intriguing and less arcane than people think, as she proves with her smart and varied collection of stories from the farther reaches of physics, written with a light touch." - Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics, Emory University, and author of Empire of Light, Universal Foam, and Hollywood Science

"I was so hooked by the end of the first chapter that I read it straight through. Black Bodies and Quantum Cats is a captivating look at how physicists think about the world. Even non-scientists may find themselves starting to think that way." - Robert L. Park, professor of physics, University of Maryland, and author of Voodoo Science

"... almost a perfect book." - Washington (DC) City Paper

"In an astonishing performance, Jennifer Ouellette manages to weave [disparate] elements together in a fascinating blend of history, science and literary allusion... [S]he brings an unusual set of talents to the creation of a unique work... Jennifer has mastered the difficult art of writing about science in a way that is both clear and correct, and beyond the science is her exceptional talent for telling a good story. There are many good popular science books to choose from, but none quite like this one." - From the Foreword by Alan Chodos, PhD


Foreword by Alan Chodos, PhD

1.Renaissance Man
1509: Publication of De Divina Proportione

2. Talkin' ‰Ű÷Bout a Revolution
August 1542: Publication of De Revolutionibus

3. Lens Crafters
Circa 1590: Invention of the Microscope

4. Good Heavens
January 7, 1610: Galileo discovers moons of Jupiter

5. Gravity's Guru
July 1687: Publication of Newton's Principia

6. Drawing Down the Fire
June 1752: Franklin's kite experiment

7. Trompe l'Oeil
1807: Invention of the camera lucida

8. Rules of Attraction
1820: First evidence of electromagnetism

9. Ingenious Engines
Circa 1840s: Babbage's analytical engine

10. Emperors of the Air
September 24, 1852: First dirigible takes flight

11. Disorderly Conduct
June 1871: Maxwell and his demon

12. Queens of Science
November 1872: Death of Mary Somerville

13. Calling Mister Watson
March 10, 1876: First documented transmission of human speech

14. Thrill Seekers
1884: First U.S. roller coaster opens at Coney Island

15. Current Affairs
May 1888: Tesla and electric power generation

16. Shadow Casters
February 2, 1893: Edison films a sneeze

17. Radio Days
1895: Tesla demonstrates wireless radio

18. Mysterious Rays
November 8, 1895: Roentgen discovers X-rays

19. A Thousand Points of Light
October 1897: Discovery of the electron

20. Quantum Leap
October 1900: Planck introduces quanta

21. It's All Relative
June 1905: Einstein introduces special relativity

22. Rocket Man
March 16, 1926: Launch of first liquid-fuel rocket

23. That Darn Cat
1935: Schroedinger's paradoxical cat

24. Copy That
October 1938: First xerographic copy made

25. Life During Wartime
July 1945: The Trinity test

26. Gimme Shelter
June 2-4, 1947: The Shelter Island conference

27. Tiny Bubbles
1948: Reddi-Wip appears on the market

28. Mimicking Mother Nature
May 13, 1958: Velcro trademark registered

29. Energize Me
December 1958: Invention of the laser

30. Small World
December 29, 1959: Feynman's classic CalTech lecture

31. Contemplating Chaos
Circa January 1961: Lorenz and the butterfly effect

32. Kamikaze Cosmos
July 1963: Discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation

33. When Particles Collide
April 1994: Discovery of the top quark

34. Check Mate
May 1997: Deep Blue defeats Kasparov

35. Much Ado About Nothing
December 1998: Discovery of accelerating universe

36. The Case of the Missing Neutrinos
February 2001: Solution to solar neutrino problem

37. Icarus Descending
September 2002: Schoen found guilty of scientific misconduct

38. String Section
October 2003: NOVA special on string theory