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Sticky - Laurie Winkless *****

There has been a suggestion doing the rounds that if you don't get into a book after the first few pages, you should give it up - because life's too short. If I'd followed this suggestion, I wouldn't have discovered what a brilliant book Sticky is. I'll get back to that, but it's worth saying first why Laurie Winkless's book on what makes things sticky, produces friction and grip - or for that matter lubricates - is so good.

Without doubt, Winkless is great at bringing storytelling to her writing. She frames her information well with interviews, visits to places and her personal experiences. But of itself, that isn't enough. The reason, for example, I was captivated by her section on the remarkable (though oddly, given the book's title, entirely non-sticky) adhesive qualities of the gecko's foot was really about the way that Winkless takes us through the different viewpoints on how the foot's adhesion works. We get plenty of science and also a touch of controversy. I'd read plenty of books before that made reference to geckos' feet - but I got far more from this book than I ever have before.

Another example of a section that totally surprised and delighted me was one covering curling (the obscure winter sport, not the business of a hairdresser). I have no interest in any sport - yet what it's possible to do with curling stones, and how the ice is being manipulated  by both the bottom of the stone and the broom was totally fascinating. Again, part of the appeal was that the science wasn't cut and dried. We got to witness a real, fierce if friendly, scientific to-and-fro between two opposing theories (neither of which has yet to come out on top).

I had already read a good, but ultimately too detailed, book on adhesives (Steve Abbott's Sticking Together) before, and Winkless covers these in passing, but there is a far wider coverage here. (Amusingly, given the cover, one thing that isn't covered is chewing gum.) We get into the hydrodynamic properties of swim suits (and sharks), air resistance, all sorts of oddities of ice (including a new view on that old point about skates not melting ice due to pressure), tyres, earthquakes, gauge blocks (I'd never heard of these, but now want some) and more. I won't deny that, as is often the case with material science or geology books, just occasionally the same factors came back a touch too often, but the range of topics was sufficient to revive the interest very quickly.

It's also the kind of book where you discover lots of really interesting snippets of information. For example,  I hadn’t realised that the moment magnitude scale used to describe the strength of earthquakes (the Richter scale hasn't been used for decades, despite constant references in the media) doesn’t take into account the depth at which the quake occurs. So, for instance, Winkless describes experiencing a devastating-sounding magnitude 6.2 quake (she lives in New Zealand) but all it did was roll some pencils off her desk.

So what was the problem at the beginning? It was Winkless's journalistic strength coming back to bite her. There is sometimes so much focus on the interviewees that it focused on their interests too tightly, getting in the way of the science. A later example of this was in the chapter on tyres - Winkless hangs this on Formula 1. She talks to F1 people and as a result there is far too much about F1 tyres and circumstances for anyone who doesn't care about the sport and would rather the focus was on the tyres normal people, like the readers, use. That opening issue that nearly put me off was a really interesting unknown - how ancient cave art pigments manage to stick so well to stone - that was almost entirely hidden with pages that had nothing to do with stickiness or science, just the interests of her interviewees.

Overall, though, this was not a problem, as the excellence of the book shines through. Stickiness may not be something that we often think of as a science issue, but Winkless both shows how interesting it can be, and also how much there is still to learn in this topic that affects all our everyday lives.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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