Helen Czerski: Storm In A Teacup

Cover of Storm In A Teacup, by Helen CzerskiI studied physics because it explained things that I was interested in. It allowed me to look around and see the mechanisms making our everyday world tick. Best of all, it let me work some of them out for myself. Even though I’m a professional physicist now, lots of the things I’ve worked out for myself haven’t involved laboratories or complicated computer software or expensive experiments. The most satisfying discoveries have come from random things I was playing with when I wasn’t supposed to be doing science at all. Knowing about some basic bits of physics turns the world into a toybox.

I commended Helen Czerski to your attention, as a physics popularizer, in one the earliest posts I made on this blog. At that time I was enthusing about her BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science. Since then I’ve also enjoyed Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics and From Ice to Fire: The Incredible Science of Temperature. Czerski is a working physicist, with an interest in oceanography. What she’s been doing with her TV science popularizations is to take a big, sweeping theme in physics (light, sound, temperature) and to tease apart its relevance to everyday life as well as to cutting edge science—sometimes there are practical demonstrations, sometimes interviews with scientists, and sometimes Czerski gets to wander around in exotic locations, looking valiant and contemplative (something which seems to be absolutely required these days, for any science thread on television).

This approach carries over into her first book, Storm In A Teacup, subtitled The Physics of Everyday Life. The deal here is that Czerski identifies something interesting in a trivial aspect of daily experience, links that to a fundamental principle of physics, and then gallops off in various interesting directions, highlighting more stuff that is driven by the same physical principle.

So the popping of popcorn takes us to the Gas Laws, which take us to rocketry, steam engines, elephant’s trunks, katabatic winds and diving whales. A little “do this with your kids” experiment involving a bottle of lemonade and a handful of raisins provides the starting point for a dissertation on gravity and buoyancy, which touches on the Titanic sinking, high diving, weighing scales, the design of Tower Bridge in London, tightrope walking and the manoeuverability (or otherwise) of T. rex. Other chapters deal with the importance of characteristic length and time scales to physical phenomena, wave motion, phase changes, centrifugal force and electromagnetism. The final chapter, entitled “A Sense Of Perspective”, pulls many of these themes together by exploring their relevance to human beings, to the planet Earth, and to the existence of civilization.

Czerski communicates her own enthusiasm very well, and leavens the narrative with personal anecdotes, which reveal (among other things) a certain obsession with mugs of tea and slices of toast. Most of the physics was familiar to me, but watching Czerski draw her links to many disparate phenomena was always entertaining. And occasionally, there’s an amazing fact: she tells us that the Titanic sank in water that was only fourteen times deeper than the ship’s length (I’d have guessed much deeper than that); explains why pigeons bob their heads back and forth when they walk (unless they’re walking on a treadmill); and why UK pennies manufactured after 1992 stick to magnets, while earlier coins don’t (I was immediately set rummaging for pocket change to test this one for myself).

The final chapter manages to produce some of those grand-scale revelations that the late Carl Sagan deployed so well, shocking the reader (at least momentarily) into a completely new view of the world:

Some of the water [in Antarctica] has been frozen for a million years. […] In contrast, the molecules being pushed out of Hawaii’s volcanoes as lava are only just dropping below 1,100°F for the first time since the Earth was formed, 4.5 billion years ago.

And the idea Czerski presents a few pages later, that civilization can be  summed up by two inventions, the candle and the book (portable energy and portable information), just jumped straight into my head and has been camped there ever since.

So if, like Czerski, you enjoy having a little toolkit in your mind that turns the everyday world into a toybox (and if you don’t, why on Earth are here?) then you’ll enjoy this book. A lot.

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