Fun with Physics

Slightly edited version of my review in Wall Street Journal of Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life
by Helen Czerski :

Did you realize that the rumble of thunder associated with a lightning flash is actually a result of the whipcrack sound from the lightning flash taking longer to reach the ear from greater heights up the lightning bolt itself? “These sound waves are travelling at about 1,100 feet every second or 767 mph, which means they’re taking 4.7 seconds to cover a mile,” explain Helen Czerski in her entertaining new book. “What I hear just after the initial crack is the sound from slightly higher up the lightning bolt. It started as the same sound but it took longer to reach me because it had to travel along a sloping, and therefore longer, path. And then as the thunder rumbles on, I’m hearing the sound from higher and higher up that same lightning bolt.”
Dr Czerski is a British physicist with wide experience as a science popularizer both in print media and for the BBC. The emphasis here is definitely on “popular”; “Storm in a Teacup” is very much a fun book, pulling together many easily accessible accounts of how physics explains everyday phenomena, from the titular teacup whirlpools to the reason why ducks don’t freeze when swimming in icy water. Most of the stories are self-contained, so the reader can dip into the book anywhere and be pretty sure of pulling out a juicy plum; many are anecdotal, drawing on the author’s experience as a marine researcher, investigating what goes on at the boundary between sea and atmosphere. Czerski is at her best when describing her personal experiences of natural phenomena, whether this is her struggle with scientific equipment on the heaving deck of a research vessel in a storm, or something as familiar to the reader as that flash of lightning. The result is a painless way of learning how the world works, like having a friendly physicist giving you a personal fireside chat.
Although individual anecdotes are self-contained, “Storm in a Teacup” is arranged thematically, with eight chapters each jumping of from a particular phenomenon (such as the reason why popcorn pops) and developing a theme based on that everyday event (in this case, how space rockets work) with a final chapter looking at humankind’s place in the universe.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion of why coffee stains dry out to produce brown outlines, not because the explanation was a surprise to me, but because of the nod given to the pioneering microscopist Robert Hooke, whose contribution to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is so often overlooked. “Hooke,” she says, “hadn’t just shown the way to the world of the very small; he’d thrown open the doors and invited everyone in for a party. [His book] Micrographia inspired some of the most famous microscopists of the following centuries, and also whetted the appetite of fashionable London.” Indeed “Storm in a Teacup” whets the appetite in the same way, and the fact that there is indeed a connection between Hooke’s work and the way a puddle of coffee dries out gives you a hint of the approach used by Czerski.
One thing I learned was why ducks paddling in cold water are able to maintain their body heat. The chapter is jokingly titled “Why Don’t Ducks Get Cold Feet?” but what it actually makes clear is that their feet do indeed get cold (very cold), but thanks to some ingenious plumbing arrangements, this does not make the body of the duck cold. As the author herself says, “ducks can happily stand on the ice precisely because their feet are cold. And they don’t care.”
This otherwise excellent book did irritate me in a few small ways. A misguided attempt to interpret the English for an American audience ends up falling between two stools when we are told that the British approach to solving a problem is to “find the cookie tin and put the kettle on.” In my experience, a Britisher might have a biscuit tin, and an American might have a cookie jar. No Britisher I know has a cookie tin, but perhaps they do things differently on board ocean research vessels.
More seriously, a reference to radio waves spreading out in circle from the sinking Titanic misses the opportunity to point out that they actually spread spherically, which is relevant to the story built up from that remark. I suspect that the author meant “spherical” but wrote “circular” in a fit of absent-mindedness and never corrected it. Finally one of my pet hates is to see a physicist refer to “the Theories of Special and General Relativity.” It is the theories that are special (that is, restricted to the special case of uniform motion) or general (that is, generally applicable to any motion), not the relativity!
As these examples show, the book would have benefited from a final polish by an editor with an understanding of physics and the vernacular. But these are minor points which are unlikely to trouble the intended audience. “Storm in a Teacup” would be an ideal gift for any scientifically inquisitive person, including children and adults who retain the sense of wonder of a child. Robert Hooke would have loved it.

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