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text 2018-02-10 13:35
Reading progress update: I've read 1%.
Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Kathryn Harkup

I don't usually anticipate the release of a new book, but this one I have been looking for. I really loved the author's A is for Arsenic (currently in the running for our Flat Book Society read in May), and I am confident that this new one will be equally as enlightening (ha!), fun, and just a little bit ... dramatic.


Here's the opening to the book:

On 4 November 1818, a scientist stood in front of the corpse of an athletic, muscular man. Behind him his electrical equipment was primed and fizzing with energy. The scientist was ready to conduct a momentous scientific experiment.

The final preparations were made to the cadaver – a few cuts and incisions to expose key nerves. No blood ran from the wounds. At that moment the thing on the table in front of the young scientist was just flesh and bone, from which all life had been extinguished. Then the corpse was carefully connected to the electrical equipment.

Immediately every muscle was thrown into powerful convulsions, as though the body was violently shuddering from cold. A few adjustments were made and the machine connected a second time. Now full, laborious breathing commenced. The belly distended, the chest rose and fell. With the final application of electricity the fingers of the right hand started to twitch as though playing the violin. Then, one finger extended and appeared to point.

The images conjured up by this account may seem familiar. Perhaps you have seen them on the silver screen when Boris Karloff’s iconic creature twitched and stumbled into life. Or maybe you have read something like this in the pages of a novel written by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. But the description above is not fiction. It happened. Two experimenters, Aldini and Ure, made the dead move using electrical devices. 


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review 2018-01-28 23:56
Storm in a Teacup
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

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 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. A 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 kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.


I'm re-using the above quote (already used in a progress update) because it truly describes the book's take on science and getting people interested in the subject(s) of science.


I really enjoyed this book. I have a both a personal and professional interest in science, but am neither a scientist nor engineer, which makes me somewhat of an oddball in my family.

While much of this is due to other interests and perhaps a smidgeon of defying parental expectations, I cannot help but think that having a maths/physics teacher and a chemistry teacher who were truly awful at explaining things. To give an example, I once asked my mum, a chemical engineer, for help with my chemistry homework. Thirty minutes later we were discussing it over the phone with her friends from work, also experts in the field, with the outcome that they all concluded that the proposed homework assignment was nonsense as the chemical reaction proposed would not and simply could not occur... I can't say that this impressed my chemistry teacher. Thankfully, I left the country to go to school in the US after that particular year, and didn't have to take any chemistry after that.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about chemistry - and other sciences, since they are all related, but particularly chemistry - but I strongly believe that the way that science is taught plays a huge role in fostering interest, enthusiasm and even confidence in people, particularly young people, who want to learn about it.


This is where books like Storm in a Teacup come into play. I have seen a few books - and we certainly seem to have picked a few books for the Flat Book Society reads - that in some way failed to communicate with the reader. Communication and the ability to explain concepts and relationships, however, is crucial to producing a good science book.

Helen Czerski did a marvellous job at this. At least in my opinion. I have seldom found myself bored or talked down to. What is more, I could not wait to pick the book up again every night to read the next chapter. I also did not mind at all when I had to re-read a previous chapter to remind myself of a concept that had been explained earlier - which is my failing, or rather my reading too fast. There was a lot to absorb in the book despite Czerski's great efforts to use everyday objects like toasters, tea cups, a piece of buttered toast, a candle, ducks' feet, etc. to explain complex concepts of physics.


And for that reading experience alone - the inspiration to want to read more - I applaud Storm in a Teacup.


Previous Reading updates:


Update # 1

Update # 2

Update # 3

Update # 4

Update # 5

Update # 6

Update # 7


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text 2018-01-09 23:25
Reading progress update: I've read 301 out of 301 pages.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

Oh, I really liked this book.

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text 2018-01-09 21:40
Storm in a Teacup - Reading Update: Chapter 7
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

This chapter was all about spinning. I liked it - not only because it again featured a lot of tea (she seems to drink and stare at tea A LOT!) but it also had action and suspense (literally if you read about the trebuchet experiments). 


While I can't see myself building a trebuchet myself (I'll wait for Murder by Death's detailed report on that particular experiment), I really enjoyed reading about it. It does illustrate her points rather well. I might, however, be observing the toast rotation experiment with less frustration going forward. 


I again had to smile because I was reminded of the Humboldt biography (The Invention of Nature) when she mentioned Mount Chimborazo.



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text 2018-01-08 22:52
Storm in a Teacup - Reading Update: Chapter 6
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

Well, the story about ducks and how they regulate the temperature in their feet was fab. So were the parts about the Arctic Ocean, the Fram, the molecular structures of sugar and salt, and Brownian motion.


It is just me or are her choice of anecdotes getting a little less focused? I mean, I don't mind that much, but some of the trains of thought seem a little forced.


Still, this was a hugely enjoyable chapter just for the ducks alone.


(The image is not from the book, I found it here.)

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