The last half of this century has witnessed the popularising of science as an important task. It was taken up by scientists beginning with Carl Sagan and carried on by people such as Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene and others. One thing common among these physicists is that they took the most advanced topics — such as the Big Bang Theory, quantum physics, time travel, black holes, parallel universes and dark matter — and tried to capture the interest of the masses by simplifying the subject. Their efforts not only popularised scientific knowledge, but also the scientific method and logical thinking. Helen Czerski, a British physicist and presenter of science programmes on the BBC, joins this group of writers with her debut book Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life.

Czerski, however, adopts a different approach. She takes mundane objects and brings out those details about their functioning that are usually not noticed by anyone. In her book, she has tried to draw parallels of the scientific principles governing day-to-day physics with the most exotic topics in scientific inquiry. She points out that scientific patterns “exist both in the kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the Universe.” To readers of traditional popular science books, she says that when they are trying to understand how the Universe works, they should also be mindful of the fact that the same physics applies everywhere. Thus she is able to see unity in diversity where others see randomness. We can see in this book that the same principles govern apparently very disparate phenomena in the Universe.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to one principle of physics, describing its application to multiple phenomena starting with easily observable and nearly accessible things, and moving towards relatively complex and distant things. The chapter on gas laws, for example, starts with an explanation of why, in the process of popping corn, some kernels fail to pop and instead burn. The same laws are then applied to the biology of whales and elephants and the functioning of steam engines and rockets. The chapter on gravity makes interesting revelations about the sinking of the Titanic, attributing it to possible reasons other than its hitting an iceberg.

A simple explanation of scientific principles reveals the fascinating workings behind the most banal of phenomena

The chapter on surface tension and viscosity begins with an interesting anecdote about milk bottles and how they used to be “invaded” by a certain species of birds in search of the cream that would rise to the top of the bottle. The same principle is then employed to explain tuberculosis, water movement in plants and bubble baths. One of the most interesting facts — at least for me — was the examination of the working of non-Newtonian fluids. These are liquids that do not follow Newton’s law of viscosity. Czerski uses this principle to explain why ketchup “resists” so much from coming out of its bottle. The same principle is used in the movement of snails. The last chapter, aptly titled ‘A Sense of Perspective’, tries to conclude the discussion by linking human existence with the planet it inhabits and its historical progress into a civilisation.

Czerski does not miss the opportunity — now that she has the interest of the readers heightened — to bring home the importance of scientific thinking. According to her, only reading about amazing facts of science cannot satisfy the curiosity of the readers in totality. They have to make an extra effort to develop critical thinking because we are collectively responsible for our civilisation. Science brings the highest level of transparency by making all kinds of data and information available to everyone. Moreover, the perpetual quest of scientists to prove earlier theories wrong, or to find loopholes therein, is the driving force behind all the scientific progress that humans have made.

Modern life is full of complex decisions: is it worth paying more for a compact fluorescent light bulb? Is it safe to sleep with my phone next to my bed? Should I trust the weather forecast? What difference does it make if my sunglasses have polarising lenses? The basic principles alone often won’t provide specific answers, but they’ll provide the context needed to ask the right questions. … Critical thinking is essential to make sense of our world, especially with advertisers and politicians all telling us loudly that they know best. We need to be able to look at the evidence and work out whether we agree with them.— Excerpt from the book

The work has been titled befittingly. Just as people getting excited about trivial matters is described as ‘a storm in a teacup’, this book creates excitement about trivial matters by highlighting the underlying science. Keeping in mind the attraction of Czerski’s unpretentious narrative, sometimes it is better to subdivide the chapters with headings giving readers an outline of what they are venturing into, especially in a book that tries to cover a lot of topics in a limited space. It is encouraging to encounter a strong and curious female voice in a domain that has traditionally been occupied by men of extraordinary genius, and Czerski also highlights the contributions of several female scientists in her attempt to demystify and elucidate the abstruse concepts in physics.

The reviewer is a civil servant and a freelance writer

Storm in a Teacup: The
Physics of Everyday Life
By Helen Czerski
W.W. Norton and Co., US
ISBN: 978-0393248968
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 30th, 2017

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