skip to content

Flying circus of physics


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Measure of Everything: An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Measurement, Christopher Joseph, general editor

I love books about units of measure, especially strange units or units about things I never thought about measuring. (I always ask, “Someone wants to measure that? Why?) The recent and well selling book A Measure of Everything is a delightful collection of both common and curious measures and includes many well-drawn illustrations to make the points. (You can order the book through by clicking on “Store” at the left side of the screen and going down the list until you get to this book.)

Here are a few examples of the curious units and measures:

mouse unit: the amount of a toxic material required to kill 50% of the mice exposed to it. (I suppose that some students think there should also be a textbook-author unit.)

barn: a unit of area used in particle physics to describe the ability of a tiny target to scatter incoming particles. The unit is thought to come from the exaggerated expression that some targets scatter so well that they are as big as a barn door, that is, they are relatively large.

shed: an even smaller unit of area used in scattering experiments. Do you think that maybe some of these units in particle physics were dreamed up during a Grateful Dead concert?

scruple: a traditional weight unit used in apothecary.

ullage: the measure of how much a container is missing its contents, especially after shipping has caused some of the contents to be spilled. This was useful to whiskey distillers who would ship their products in barrels, from which some of the whiskey would leak or spill. I think we could use the term to describe people. Any time you get really upset with a superior and need to hide your anger, just smile and compliment them by saying, “You have great ullage, and it is a pleasure to work for you.”

Seeing the Light: Optics in Nature, Photograph, Color, Vision, and Holography
David Falk, Dieter Brill, and David Stork

I am fascinated by optics, as you might be able to tell from all the optics items I wrote for The Flying Circus of Physics. The book by Falk, Brill, and Stork is a masterpiece at conveying the excitement of optics without using a single equation. It is chockfull with short explanations that will carry you through the entirety of everyday optics and optical instruments, including vision. It also contains hundreds of little experiments that you can perform with common household materials. For example, one of the book’s “Try It” experiments describes how you can make a spot that disappears when wet and reappears when dry. Of course, showing this effect is simple enough; the power of the book is that the authors give you a physical explanation in simple terms.

Although designed to be a textbook at the introductory level (college or high school), the book works just as well if you leisurely dip into it. Not only will you learn about the theories of optics, but you will never again look at the natural world the same way because you then will see all the curious optical effects that intrigue Falk, Brill, and Stork, and also me.

Science from Your Airplane Window, Elizabeth A. Wood

This is one of my cherished books, collected back when I invented The Flying Circus of Physics while still a student, and it formed the basis of two of my articles when I was writing for Scientific American. It is a delightful book for the general public, describing science that you can see from an airplane window during flight.

For example, Wood’s book first alerted me to the physics of river meanders, which you can see while flying over the rivers. (Why do all rivers meander instead of flowing directly down the sloping terrain? Even Einstein wondered about this.) Elizabeth Wood also describes various optical effects that appear on clouds or the ground, things that make a long flight fun.

If you buy the book (find it in the Store in the menu at the left here), I suggest that you also buy a pair of cheap polarizing sunglasses so that you can use one of the polarizing filters to monitor the polarization of the skylight and the light reflected from bodies of water, as described in the book. Of course, if you are stuck in one of those dreadful middle seats on a jumbo jet, all hope of some scientific fun is lost and you had better bring along a music or video player.

How Everything Works: Making Physics out of the Ordinary

Louis Bloomfield has spent more than a decade writing about how things work, everything (and I do mean everything) from microwaves to jet engines to the curling of hair. His latest popular-science book has just become available in paperback (August 2007).

I have seen many “how things work” books since I was a student. Many were disappointing but some were very good. Bloomfield’s book is superior because he knows his physics (he is a physics professor at the University of Virginia) and he has taken the time and effort to hone the descriptions, to make them clear. (Writing clearly about complicated science topics is like racing in the Tour de France because it takes not only great stamina but a fanatical dedication.)

Bloomfield also has a textbook designed as an introduction to physics at the high school or first-year college level. You can click to for either book by going to the Store in the menu at the left of the screen.

Sometime during the fall of 2007, Bloomfield will be a co-host on a television show “Some Assembly Required” on the Discovery channel in the United States and (I think) Canada. I am certain that the show will be very good. I also think you will enjoy the “How Things Work Home Page” at where Bloomfield has posted his answers to more than a thousand questions that readers have sent him over the years.

How Invention Begins

John H. Lienhard (a retired professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston) has spent a lifetime analyzing the mechanics of everything (and again I mean everything). His latest book is a fascinating read about the process of invention, not just of, say, machines but also of concepts or even desires.

For example, he devotes a chapter to the invention of speed, a long-held desire of humans to move faster than they can walk, to even move faster than the wind. Lienhard traces the early history of the quest for speed from the first rockets of the Chinese through the early steam boats and the eventual steam locomotives. His point here and throughout the book is that the invention of a machine or concept comes out of a culture created by many (perhaps countless) advances in both technology and social purpose.

Lienhard has long broadcast essays about invention on Public Radio in North America. His home page is at where you can read the transcripts and hear the audios of thousands of his essays. Save them as reward after a hard day’s work.

The Flying Circus of Physics
How to see inside the book for free
Amazon has (finally) set up the facility where you can open up the second edition of the book and see what I wrote. To do this, click on Store in the menu at the left, click on the image of the book (as opposed to the "buy" button), and then when the Amazon page comes up, click on the Search Inside button below the image of the book's cover. Even if no image appears, use the arrows on the right side to go through the available pages. Sometimes you might see a lot of pages and sometimes only a few.

top of content