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review 2018-01-17 18:00
Everything you've ever wanted to know about your toaster (and your afternoon cup of tea) but so far never even thought to ask.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

My high school physics teacher was a very nice gentleman who clearly loved his subject -- but who equally clearly lived in a very different world from that of us rowdy teenagers, and to whom it never even seemed to occur that his way of thinking might just be a tad too alien and abstract for most of us (or if it did occur to him, he didn't have the slightest clue how to bridge the gap).  It certainly also didn't help that he was teaching in what was to him a foreign language -- and that he had no clue how to police cheating: whatever method he came up with, we were always at least a step or two ahead of him.  (Which, back in the day, was virtually my only saving grace when it came to tests, though in the long run it of course didn't help at all.)  In short, he'd probably have made a stellar physics professor at university -- as a school teacher, however, he was entirely miscast.


Now, far be it from me to blame my own deficiencies on the deficiencies of my high school education: Though I've always loved biology (and been fascinated by the scientific / theoretical aspects of medicine), it's unlikely I would ever have chosen science as a career.  However, with the exception of optics, I've always struggled more to get a grip on physical concepts than on biological or chemical ones.  Even maths presented decidedly less of a challenge: I didn't particularly care for it, but it was never a subject apt to seriously endanger my grade point average.  That dubious honour always went to physics alone.  As a result, for the longest time and until I somewhat grudgingly decided to remedy that fact much later in life, my understanding of physics -- other than optics -- was essentially a "reflected" understanding, to the extent that the laws of physics were relevant to other subjects, such as biology and chemistry (e.g., in the composition and behaviour of cells and atoms).


Part of this, undoubtedly, was due to the fact that other areas (history, languages, music and literature) were far more of a focus of my early upbringing: Helen Czerski's afterword to Storm in a Teacup, where she recounts how both her family background and growing up in industrial Manchester helped shape and foster her interest in science and technology, spoke to me just because I can relate to precisely the opposite; notwithstanding the fact that both my grandmother and her twin sister studied medicine (they were among the earliest women to enroll in that field in Germany) and several of my aunts -- cousins of my mother -- are doctors as well.


But I also would wish my high school teacher had taken a similar approach as Czerski in Storm in a Teacup, because the first of several things she achieves (and the importance of which my teacher missed entirely) is to make her readers understand why physics matters to each of us and what it has to do with our daily lives, above and beyond the puny truisms that we've all heard of.  ("Yeah, I know that there's such a thing as gravity, but what does it really mean and why does it matter to me except for -- literally -- keeping my feet on the ground and making things fall down if they're not securely resting on something else?")  That doesn't mean, of course, that from suddenly gaining a basic understanding how your toaster works -- or why popcorn pops, why buttered toast almost always lands on the floor with the buttered side down, why ketchup initially stays in the bottle (and how to get it out of there without spilling half the contents all over your plate, the table, and your clothes), or from devining the secrets behind the innumerable mysteries associated with a cup of tea (with or without milk in it) -- it's only a small step towards a full understanding of astrophysics, nuclear physics, or even just "ordinary" university level physics.  But as Czerski doesn't tire to point out, the laws of physics apply to our daily life in the same way as they apply to the universe at large; and I'm pretty sure if my teacher way back when had understood how to get us to make a connection with our everyday world, and understand how physics matters to each of us in a million different ways every single day of our lives, many of us would have found it fascinating -- instead of writing it off as unbearably dull, unattainably abstract, and / or totally irrelevant to our lives and even our potential career paths.  As Czerski puts it:

"There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets.  It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but of no real use to adults.  An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic.  But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere.  At toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself.  Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the ktichen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.  The advantage of looking at the toaster first is that even if you never get to worry about the temperature of the universe, you still know why your toast is hot.  But once you're familiar with the pattern, you will recognize it in many other places, and some of those other places will be the most impressive achievements of human society.  Learning the science of the everyday is a direct route to the background knowledge about the world that every citizen needs in order to participate fully in society."

The laws controlling the spin of the Hubble Telescope's gyroscopes are the same that make a raw egg spin.  The laws that make popcorn explode and that help create focaccia bread are the same laws that control the Santa Ana winds in California, move a steam engine, propel rockets, and which any sea-bound mammal, such as a whale, needs to cope with when hunting hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean.  Bubble baths form according the the same laws that are at play in the formation of a layer of cream on top of milk (and that are now used to get rid of that layer of cream in the process of homogenization), that make sponges and towels absorbent, that are used by every tree, from those in your back garden (if you have one) to the giant redwood in order to pull water up to its very top, and which modern medicine uses in order to be able to perform tests on the basis of a single drop of blood where a whole vial used to be necessary before.  The flow (or not) of ketchup out of a bottle and the sloshing of tea in a mug is dictated by the same laws that are at play in a lock gate and at the Hoover Dam ... etc., etc.


Czerski assumes virtually no understanding of the laws of physics (or anything related, such as mathematics) on the part of her readers going into each individual topic, and while that occasionally results in some talking down to the reader ("One nanometre really is tiny -- there are a million of them in one millimetre" ... thank you, Ma'am, I knew that much at least already!), most of the time she meets her readers at eye level -- and I really have to hand it to her; I'd never have thought there could be so much suspense associated with the details of heating popcorn, baking focaccia bread, or making a cup of tea.  And I just love her sense of humour:

"In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias detected waves from the sky at microwave wavelengths that shouldn't have been there.  They spent a long time trying to work out which bit of the sky on their telescope was messing up the mesurement, sure that something was generating extra microwave light.  They also cleared out some nesting pigeons from the telescope, along with their droppings (euphemistically described as 'white dielectric material' in the paper they wrote).  The unwanted background light persisted.  It eventually turned out to be the signature of the Big Bang, some of the most ancient light in the universe.  There is something special about an experiment that has to be very careful to distinguish between the after-effects of pigeon poo and the after-effects of the formation of the universe."

There possibly won't be much in here that is news to a trained physicist, or an enthusiast of the subject matter, but I'll gladly take Elentarri's word that even a scientifically trained reader may find this book enjoyable.  For many of the rest of us (even those who were able benefit from a somewhat more enlightened physics instruction in school than me), this is in many respects eye-opening in the best of all ways, in addition to being an engaging and well-written read.



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text 2018-01-11 19:16
Reading progress update: I've read 118 out of 400 pages.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski


This is compelling reading -- I'm tempted to just race through the whole book in (almost) one go, but I've decided to take it slowly, one chapter at a time approximately every other day.  I'm not sure that will necessarily mean I'll ultimately remember more, but so far it's been adding to my enjoyment.

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review 2017-12-16 01:01
The Power of Narrativium
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Murder by Death and BrokenTune have essentially summed up a lot of the points I'd want to make about The Science of Discworld.  (What a misnomer that title is, incidentally -- and not only because the science part is really concerned with "Roundworld," i.e., our world ... the science part in this book expressly negates what chiefly makes Discworld tick, namely narrativium, which is described here as the narrative imperative, but actually stands for so much more.  But I'll get to that in a minute.)  And there is quite a bit of more discussion in MbD's post here and in the comments sections of BT's posts here and here, so little remains for me to add. 


There is one point in particular that is bothering me about the assertions made by the scientist co-authors, though, and that is their constant poo-pooing of any- and everything that isn't scientifically quantifiable or measurable, even though (in one of their many contradictions) they do admit in the book's final chapters that the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being" kit we have inherited and are, ourselves, passing on to future generations (both individually and collectively) includes "extelligence", which constitutes not only collectively shaped knowledge and experience, but also virtually every abstract concept known to mankind today ... as long as -- according to Stewart and Cohen -- a person's response to such a concept can be measured and recorded in some way, shape or form.  That, however, still doesn't stop them from talking down the concept of a soul (human or otherwise), or from insisting that narrativium doesn't exist in our world.  I disagree, and largely in lieu of a review I'm going to throw their co-author Terry Pratchett's own words right in their teeth (and incidentally, Pratchett was, for all I know, an atheist, so religion -- which seems to be a key part of Stewart and Cohen's objection to the notion of a soul -- doesn't even enter into the discussion here):

"I will give you a lift back, said Death, after a while.

'Thank you.  Now ... tell me ...'

What would have happened if you hadn't saved him?' [the Hogfather, Discworld's  version of Santa Claus.]

'Yes! The sun  would have risen just the same, yes?'


'Oh, come on.  You can't expect me to believe that.  It's an astronomical fact.'

The sun would not have risen.

She turned on him.

'It's been a long night, Grandfather!  I'm tired and I need a bath!  I don't need silliness!'

The sun would not have risen.

'Really?  Then what would have happened, pray?'

A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

They walked in silence.

'Ah,' said Susan dully. 'Trickery with words.  I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that.'

I am nothing if not literal-minded.  Trickery with words is where humans live.

'All right,' said Susan.  'I'm not stupid.  You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable.'

Really?  As if it was some kind of pink pill?  No.  Humans need fantasy to be human.  To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

'Tooth fairies?  Hogfathers? Little --'

Yes.  As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

'So we can believe the big ones?'

Yes.  Justice.  Mercy.  Duty.  That sort of thing.

'They're not the same at all?'

You think so?  Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy, and yet-- Death waved a hand.  And yet you act as if there is some ... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

'Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point--'

My point exactly.

She tried to assemble her thoughts.

There is a place where thwo galaxies have been colliding for a million years, said Death, apropos of nothing.  Don't try to tell me that's right.

'Yes, but people don't think about that,' said Susan.  Somewhere there was a bed ...

Correct.  Stars explode, worlds collide, there's hardly anywhere in the universe where humans can live without being frozen or fried, and yet you believe that a ... a bed is a normal thing.  It is the most amazing talent.


Oh, yes.  A very speccial kind of stupidity.  You think the whole universe is inside your heads.

'You make us sound mad,' said Susan.  A nice warm bed ...

No.  You need to believe in things that aren't true.  How else can they become?  said Death, helping her up on to Binky."

(Terry Pratchett: Hogfather)

So you see, Messrs. Stewart and Cohen, there is narrativium everywhere where there are humans.  It may not have been part of the universe from the time of its creation (however we attempt to pinpoint or define that time).  And we don't know whether any of the long-extinct creatures who populated our planet millions of years before we came along had it -- if they did, it seems they at any rate didn't have enough of it to create a lasting record beyond their fossilized physical remains.  But humans wouldn't be humans without narrativium.  Because that's how the rising ape becomes something more than a mammal (call it a falling angel or whatever you will).  Because that's why it is the sun we see rising every morning, not merely a ball of flaming gas.  Because that's why the stars are shining in the sky at night, not a collection of galactic nuclear reactors that just happen to be close enough so we can see them with our naked eye.  And because that's what enables us to hope, to dream, and to consequently make things come true that nobody previously even thought possible.


It's narrativium that got us where we are today.  Not alone -- science, technology, and a whole lot of parts of the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being-Kit" helped.  A lot.  But narrativium is the glue that holds them all together.


And since as a species we also seem to be endowed with a fair share of bloodimindium, maybe -- just maybe -- that, combined with narrativium and scientific advance all together will even enable us to survive the next big global catastrophe, which in galactic terms would seem to be right around the corner (at least if our Earth's history to date is anything to go by).  If the sharks and a bunch of protozoons could, then one would hope so could we ... space elevator, starship Enterprise, or whatever else it takes, right?


P.S.  Like MbD's and BT's, my love of the Discworld wizards is unbroken.  And clearly there is no higher life form than a librarian.  (Ook.)


P.P.S.  I said elsewhere that I'd be replacing Val McDermid's Forensics with this book as my "16 Festive Tasks" Newtonmas read.  I'm still doing this: at least it does actually have a reasonable degree of actual scientific contents; even if highly contradictory in both approach and substance and even if I didn't much care for the two science writers' tone.



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text 2017-12-04 12:28
Reading progress update: I've read 135 out of 385 pages.
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Well, so far the science writing is pretty neat for what it set out to do, and this one will definitely replace my Newtonmas read for the 16 Festive Tasks.


Still, can I just say that I nevertheless prefer the Discworld chapters?


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review 2017-12-02 20:49
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 13 - Hogswatch Night
Hogfather (Discworld, #20) - Terry Pratchett
Hogfather: Discworld, Book 20 - Nigel Planer,Terry Pratchett

Ponder and his fellow students watched Hex carefully.

"It can't just, you know, stop," said Adrian 'Mad Drongo' Turnipseed.

"The ants are just standing still," said Ponder.  He sighed.  "All right, put the wretched thing back."

Adrian carefully replaced the small fluffy teddy bear above Hex's keyboard.  Things immediately began to whirr.  The ants started to trot again.  The mouse squeaked.

They'd tried this three times.

Ponder looked again at the single sentence Hex had written.

+++ Mine!  Waaaah! +++

"I don't actually think," he said gloomily, "that I want to tell the Archchancellor that this machine stops working if we take its fluffy teddy bear away.  I just don't think I want to live in that kind of world."

"Er," said Mad Drongo, "you could always, you know, sort of say it needs to work with the FTB enabled ...?"

"You think that's better?" said Ponder, reluctantly.  It wasn't as if it was even a very realistic interpretation of a bear.

"You mean, better than 'fluffy teddy bear'?"

Ponder nodded.  "It's better," he said.

Finished -- and there will have to be an instant reread.  My life needs this right now.  Urgently.


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