At some point, my preconceptions of this book got crossed with another—likely Tyson’s Death by Black Hole, currently queued—and I expected it to be a collection of loosely-related physics articles. In fact, it is a chronology of anecdotes about important inventions or discoveries and the physical principles that underlie them.
One rhetorical tack that Ouellette likes to use is to introduce each anecdote or story with some applicable piece of modern culture—e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an illustration of chaos theory—which I’m sure is her attempt to popularize the subject and connect it, however tenuously, to the sugary pillars of modern televised culture. Xerography and electric paper? Think Harry Potter. Some examples are better than others.
I’ll admit, it does feel a bit like pandering, but the rest of Ouellette’s writing is still pretty good. My only other source of irritation was her insistence upon illustrating and describing what looks like Bohr’s atomic model, which isn’t considered accurate anymore. When she gets to quantum theory, she knows about electron “clouds,” but never uses that term and never specifies that this cloud model is a clarification of the simplistic satellite-like Bohr model.
It builds well, though: she starts with the earliest scientific discoveries and works her way forward through Galileo and Newton and Franklin, and through Morse, Edision, and the Age of Invention, through Einstein and Planck and finally string theory. I was aware of almost all of this history from Bill Bryson’s fantastic A Short History of Nearly Everything, and in fact Bryson’s history is much more detailed and informative (not to mentioned crossing many more branches of science), but Ouellette delves deeper into the mechanics of physics than Bryson dared.
As with most attempts to popularize esoteric subjects, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats both succeeds and fails. Ouelette’s book does a bit better than some, I think, but fails to capture the same magic as Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a book she holds up as an icon of accessible science writing.