Skip to main content

Atoms Under the Floorboards - Chris Woodford ****

I am very fond of the 'take something everyday and use it to explore science' genre - I did exactly that with my book The Universe Inside You, and I'm delighted to say that in Atoms Under the Floorboards - the surprising science hidden in your home, Chris Woodford takes the same kind of approach, yet come up with a totally different and highly engaging book.

The introduction was a little worrying, as it tries a bit too hard to be friendly in a way that feels at times like a kid's book ('surprising scientific explanations behind all kinds of everyday things, from gurgling drains and squeaky floorboards to rubbery custard and shiny shoes') and at others like the over-enthusiastic introduction to the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Like that remarkable tome, it settles down after a bit, although the text throughout has a kind of breathless enthusiasm that feels like it ought to be read aloud by the actor in the Cillit Bang commercial. (If you aren't familiar with the oeuvre, try this example.)

Mostly the result is phenomenal. I love the way that Woodford thinks about things we don't normally consider, like why houses don't fall down, and goes off on a riff that compares the forces from the weight of an apple (conveniently about 1 newton), through the bite of an alligator to the Space Shuttle blast-off. He manages to make very ordinary, basic stuff like simple machines (levers, wedges, wheels and the like) and turns them into things that we look at differently and understand in more depth while still genuinely enjoying what's being covered.

The only part I'd say where things get a bit sticky are the sections where he's covering material science, which frankly got just the teeniest bit dull, although even here, thinking about, for instance, the nature of glue was quite an eye-opener. If I'm going to be picky - and you have to, really, in the communication of science - the mega-breezy approach does lead to one or two pretty well incorrect statements. Einstein came up with a baffling new theory called relativity - no he didn't (that was Galileo). Or Rutherford split the atom in his gold foil experiment - no he didn't.

Even so, there is plenty to enjoy and plenty of 'I didn't know that' moments, whether you are reading about the science of slipping or the mechanism of an LED lamp. We end up with the topic of clothing, from how different materials keep you warm and/or dry (though again materials science is the least interesting aspect of the content), why jeans wear out at the knees (contrasted with a pulley), and the science of shoes, which is fine, but just stops - I'd have liked a bit of a wind-down at the end.

One final plus point - in the 'Further Reading' in the back, rather than showing off, as some authors do, by listing eminent but unreadable tomes, Woodford lists some excellent suggestions, including several that have received five stars here.

Altogether a fun, light hearted science book that you could give to a teenager, or the sort of person who doesn't really read popular science but would like to find out a bit more about the scientific world around them - and I think they'll have a good time.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…