Skip to main content

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.

Hardback: 
Bookshop.org

  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Crack in Everything - Marcus Chown *****

This is a book about black holes - and there are two ways to look at these amazing phenomena. One is to meander about in endless speculation concerning firewalls and holographic universes and the like, where there is no basis in observation, only mathematical magic. This, for me, is often closer to science fiction than science fact. The alternative, which is what Marcus Chown does so well here (apart from a single chapter), is to explore the aspects of theory that have observational evidence to back them up - and he does it wonderfully. I'm reminded in a way of the play The Audience which was the predecessor to The Crown . In the play, we see a series of moments in history when Queen Elizabeth II is meeting with her prime ministers, giving a view of what was happening in life and politics at that point in time. Here, Chown takes us to visit various breakthroughs over the last 100 or so years when a step was made in the understanding of black holes.  The first few are around the ba

The Atomic Human - Neil Lawrence ****

This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Let’s start with the title - it feels totally wrong for what the book’s about. ‘The Atomic Human’ conjures up some second rate superhero. What Neil Lawrence is getting at is the way atoms were originally conceived as what you get when you pare back more and more until what’s left is uncuttable. The idea is that this reflects the way that artificial intelligence has cut into what’s special about being human - but there is still that core left. I think a much better analogy would have been the god of the gaps - the idea that science has taken over lots of what was once attributed to deities, leaving just a collection of gaps. At the heart of the book is an excellent point: how we as humans have great processing power in our brains but very limited bandwidth with which to communicate. By comparison, AIs have a huge amount of bandwidth to absorb vast amounts of data from the internet but can’t manage our use of understanding and context. This distinct

Mapmatics - Paulina Rowińska ***

Popular mathematics can be hard to make engaging. Though some topics (such as infinity or zero) can be made interesting in isolation, usually it's best if it can be tied to something more concrete, and what Paulina Rowińska does here is to bring us the story of maps and the the maths behind them. Although Rowińska starts with Mercator and other early projections, it's not really a history of mapping - for example, there is no mention of Roger Bacon's description of using coordinates for mapping - instead the focus is the twin mathematical bases of mapping, geometry and trigonometry before moving onto other maths connections from fractals and operational research to Bayes' theorem. We start with the nature of a curved world and the compromises that need to be made to translate a 3D surface onto a sheet of paper - compromises that are rarely stated and make a huge difference to the look of the map. This is mostly very engaging, except when it spends too long on geometry a