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

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…