Skip to main content

Physics for Gearheads - Randy Beikmann ***

One of this site's favourite physics books is Physics for Future Presidents, so having a 'Physics for...' format is certainly no negative - and I count myself as a paid-up petrolhead, which I assume is similar to the term 'gearhead' which I've never encountered before (and neither has my spellchecker).

In fact that American term hides a much bigger problem that is encountered as early as page 3. No one in Europe gets taught physics in feet and pounds and degrees Fahrenheit these days - so it is immediately baffling that we get force measured in pounds as in 'This comes from the road surface pushing up on the tire contact patches with a total force of 1,500 lb.' The other concern about the first few pages is that we've launched into what the author admits is a discussion of classical physics, using a term like 'force' that is frequently misused in ordinary English without ever saying what a force is. It's just assumed that we know. Once we get into equations that lack of proper scientific units gets even more hairy. I just can't look at an equation working out force in a cylinder from pressure times an area as (500 pounds/inch2) x (12.566 inch2) without feeling I'm reading something from Victorian times.

Of course, in the UK we are mixed up when it comes to units. We buy our petrol in litres and measure temperatures in Celsius but we still measure car speeds in miles per hour and distances in miles - but the rest of Europe doesn't, and, as I stressed, all our school teaching about physics will have been using MKS metric units. Admittedly from chapter 2 onwards, the book does at least mention what the MKS units are, but it still tends to do its the examples using the old Imperial units (known here as 'SFS' units and as 'SAE' units - not sure what the difference is) - and some of these, like 'slug' as the unit of mass, I've never even heard of.

All this is a bit of shame, as there's lots of good material in the book. It read too much like a textbook (too reminiscent of the sort of thing I had to plough through at school for my liking), but is cleanly and attractively laid out and gets a lot of material in, usually giving a thorough and well-paced run through. Reading it was work rather than pleasure, but it was useful work if you want to have the tools to work out all the kinds of mechanical forces and energies and such involved in making a car go. As such, I'm not sure it's a fun read for someone who likes tinkering with cars, but it would be a great primer for would-be American auto engineers, and as such I will glowingly recommend it. (The pricing reflects this too - it's priced at over £44 in the UK.)

So this is a book that really only works for a US market and that is much more textbook for budding engineers than popular science for petrolheads. I would love to see a true popular science equivalent - one that explains the science behind the way cars work without all the tedious workings out - but this isn't it.

Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…