Thursday, 7 April 2011

Inflight Science – Brian Clegg *****

The first thing to mention about this book is the cover. So often I come across dull looking books that would have benefitted from a little splash of colour on the front - a book’s outward appearance shouldn’t affect our judgement of it, but it can and often does. There is absolutely no problem here, though – I like the colourful design and the book really grabs your attention. I suspect this is going to help sales significantly.
And I hope it does, as the contents don’t disappoint, either. This is an interesting look at the science behind the technology we come across at the airport and on the plane, and the different features of the world we can see out of the plane window during the journey. We look at many of these pieces of technology and aspects of the world in the order we come across them on a real journey, so you could easily read the book during your next wait at the airport and during your flight, observing as you go the various features discussed, and using the book to get all kinds of insights.
Partly the book is a celebration of looking at the world in a different way – from a scientific point of view. We all put our bags through the airport’s security scanners, we are all (hopefully) content to sit in our seats mid-flight, sure that we will remain up there, and we’re happy to watch a film or track the progress of our flight on the screens on the back of the seat in front of us. But less often do we think any more about all of this – about how airport scanners actually operate; about why exactly we don’t fall to the ground under gravity’s influence whilst suspended 40,000 feet in the air; or about how the LCD screens on planes work. Brian Clegg does think about these things, however, and gets across just how interesting and illuminating these scientific explanations are. And sometimes we find out that what we thought we knew is, in fact, wrong – as the book outlines, for instance, the real explanation of how the lift that gets our plane off the ground works is different from what you are likely to have been told in the past.
This is all done in clear, easy to understand language, making the book very readable. There are also a few surprising facts along the way that add to the readability of the book. I had no idea, for example, that because of some people’s fear of the number 13, there will not be a gate 13 at many airports. And, we learn, just in case passengers notice that 13 is missing and consider gate 14 as unlucky, Terminal 4 at Heathrow airport has gates 12 and 14 at opposite ends of the building, so it is not clear that there is no gate 13.
The book covers a lot of ground, and as well as what’s mentioned above, we look down at rivers to consider their formation and urban areas to think about how they developed; we look at the Earth’s atmosphere and weather events; and we consider aspects of the behaviour of the Sun, moon and planets. Because of the amount of material, after considering briefly one aspect of the plane or our surroundings, we are often quickly on to the next thing. There were times when I turned the page expecting and wanting to read more about a certain topic, only to find that we were moving on to something else. This isn’t a huge problem – the book wouldn’t work as well as it does in many other respects if we dwelled for too long on the topics. But it can occasionally mean that the explanations feel a little summary.
Taken all together, however, Inflight Science is a stimulating and approachable account of the science behind flight and of what we can see from the air. Definitely recommended.
It’s always difficult to be impartial with a book by our editor: here is part of an independent review from a newspaper:
…we should be grateful for this book from Brian Clegg, an unabashed aircraft geek. Everything about aircraft seems to fascinate him: how much they weigh, how their lavatories work, how they affect our bodies. His curiosity extends to airports, which he turns into pleasure palaces full of little-known facts rather than the dull shopping malls we normally take them to be… I consider myself reasonably competent on matters aeronautical, but he still managed to surprise me with something new on every page. For example, he digresses on why there will never be electric aircraft. The reason is that to carry the same amount of energy as 10kg of jet fuel, you’d need one ton of batteries…. He points out that only children tend still to be excited by aircraft. We should take their curiosity as a guide. With this book in hand, we have all we need to set off on our next flight with our eyes open to the sheer wonder of what is involved. Mail on Sunday (Alain de Botton)
Review by Matt Chorley
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

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