Book Review: The science of everyday lifeby Jonathan DuHamel on May. 23, 2011, under Book Reviews, General Science
This book is fun and informative. It is about science, scientists, and the scientific concepts behind common activities, and the author, Len Fisher, tells his stories without burdening the reader with mathematical formulas (except for the one on the cover).
Some of you may be old enough to remember the “Mr. Wizard” TV program in which the “Wizard” used everyday objects to conduct sometimes explosive experiments demonstrating a scientific principle. This book is reminiscent that program.
The book is structured so that each chapter stands alone, so you can read it in any order according to your interest.
Here is a very brief summary of the nine chapters.
Chapter 1: The Art and Science of Dunking
This chapter is about dunking doughnuts and cookies and introduces the concepts of diffusion and capillary action. After extensive laboratory tests, Fisher concludes that cookies should not be dunked for more than five seconds or you will risk having a soggy mess drop to the bottom of your drink. He also notes that chocolate-covered cookies are much sturdier that plain cookies. In a later chapter he notes that cookies taste better when dunked in milk rather than the British habit of dunking them in tea. That’s because the fat in milk can dissolve molecules that produce aroma while water cannot.
Chapter 2: How does a scientist boil an egg?
This chapter is about heat transfer. Fisher explains the difference between heat and temperature. In the case of a soft-boiled egg, one must apply just the right amount of heat to cause the string-like albumin molecules in the white to become entangled while assuring similar molecules in the yolk to remain untangled. Fisher also explains why you should let a roast rest before carving it.
Chapter 3: The Tao of tools
This chapter deals with the physics of hand tools and provides some suggestions for efficient use. Fisher classifies tools as levers, wedges, or percussive instruments (hammers). He notes that some of these tools don’t just make work easier, they make work possible. He also has a story of a machine invented by Archimedes that would pluck enemy ships out of the sea. It was just a simple lever. There are many little tidbits. For instance, Fisher explains why a nail driven into wood with a pre-drilled hole is much harder to extract than a nail driven without a hole.
Chapter 4: How to add up your supermarket bill
This one is about math tricks at the supermarket and pricing strategies used by the store. If you want to figure what the total will be without using a calculator: add just the dollar amounts, forget the cents. To that number add two-thirds the number of items. That will get a number surprisingly close to the actual total. Fisher explains why.
Chapter 5: How to throw a boomerang
Aerodynamics, design, and precession of gyroscopes or tops are covered in this chapter. If you are really into this subject, then within notes at the end of the book you can learn some of the rules for the Mudgeeraba Creek Emu Racing and Boomerang Throwing Association.
Chapter 6: Catch as catch can
This chapter is about catching a ball. It deals with Newton’s first law of motion, Newton’s law of gravity, and the study of parabolas (the curve described by a tossed ball). Here’s a short quiz. If you are riding a bicycle and toss a ball vertically, where will the ball fall? Behind you or back in your hand? Here’s a hint: “Suppose a marksman fires a rifle bullet horizontally, and simultaneously drops a second bullet from the hand supporting the rifle. Both bullets will hit the ground at the same time. Horizontal speed is independent of vertical speed.
Chapter 7: Bath foam, beer foam, and the meaning of life
This chapter examines the properties of colloids, which are suspensions of small particles in a medium. Examples of colloids include milk, paint, smoke, and blood. Fisher also examines why oil and water don’t mix.
Chapter 8: A matter of taste
We are back to food again. This chapter deals with taste, flavors, and aromas… and pain. Fisher notes that bitter foods are pharmacologically active and the bitter taste a warning. He notes that a little salt can reduce the bitter perception of tannin in red wine and can also enhance your perception of sweetness. Does your chewing gum lose its flavor? Take a sip of something sweet. That will reset your sweetness receptors and restore the gum’s flavor.
Chapter 9: The physics of sex
I will leave the content of this chapter to your imagination. Fisher does claim, however, that there is no real aphrodisiac substance, the only aphrodisiac is in your mind.
You can have fun with this book and perhaps learn a thing or two.
Len Fisher, an Australian, is a research fellow in the Department of Physics, University of Bristol, England.
The cover mentions that Fisher is a recipient of the Ignobel Prize in physics. This is a tongue-in-cheek award for “science that cannot, or should not, be reproduced” or for projects that “spark the public interest in science.”