Skip to main content

Why Cats Land On Their Feet – Mark Levi ***

When I saw this book and its subtitle ‘and 76 other physical paradoxes and puzzles’ I thought ‘Great, a nice relaxing evening.’ There’s a certain class of popular science book which piles in a collection of rather interesting factoids with a spot of background, the literary equivalent of watching a soap opera on TV. You sit back, disengage the brain, and chill out. Only, when I switched on this soap opera (as it were) the opening credits said ‘Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman.’
This is anything but a collection of entertaining science facts. Rather it is a set of challenging physics puzzles, some of which I suspect the average university lecturer would get wrong on the first attempt.
Broadly the 77 items fall into two camps, the delightful and the tedious. The delightful ones present you with a comprehensible (and often apparently straightforward) scenario and ask you either to predict what happens next, or to explain why it happens. These I found very enjoyable. I was taken back to my primary school, where there was a science event where you had to guess what would happen if, for example, you blew between two ping-pong balls suspended near each other by threads. Then you would try it and see what really happened. These puzzles are very much the mental equivalent.
Let me give you two quick examples. The first has two astronauts, fixed to either end of a weightless space capsule. One pushes a helium balloon towards the other. What happens to the capsule itself? Does it move, and if so in what direction? The second involves bashing the bottom of a wine bottle against a wall. (It’s recommended you put a book between the book and the wall, and wear protective clothing.) With repeated thumps, the cork will gradually move out of the bottle. But why?
The tedious examples either involved mathematical working (which for me is the point at which something goes from being a puzzle to being homework) or involved complex setups it was difficult to relate to or have any interest in. Sadly, there were considerably more of these than the delightful problems.
One other issue was that the explanations were often too summary to give a real understanding of what was going on. The book would have been better with fewer problems and a bit more detail. Take the example of one of the delightful puzzles. How does a child (or anyone else) manage to get a swing moving when they are sitting on it? The key to the explanation is that the movements you make on the swing amount to doing work and ‘the energy mismatch goes into increasing the amplitude of the oscillations.’ But this doesn’t really help. I want to know why it increase those oscillations. Why the energy goes to that as opposed to, say, making the seat bounce up and down. There isn’t enough detail, and what there is can be quite impenetrable unless you know the physics anyway.
So – a great idea, with some entertaining examples, but nowhere near as good as it could have been.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…