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

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…