Festive Reviews Physics World  December 2017
(iStock / ThomasVogel)

A day in the life

Achintya Rao reviews The Physics of Everyday Things by James Kakalios

When I was 10, I asked my mother if I could take my toy wheelbarrow full of assorted toys from home to school. We had been studying simple machines in our “general science” class, and I saw examples of them everywhere I looked: several of the toys I grew up with were perfect for understanding concepts I was encountering in a formal way for the first time. Now, unless you are a particularly enthusiastic 10-year-old, even the most avid physics enthusiast does not necessarily awaken each morning and turn their mind to the various physical processes they will encounter over the course of their day. Yet this is precisely the sort of journey that author James Kakalios takes us on in his book The Physics of Everyday Things.

Kakalios talks directly to you, the reader, as he puts you in the shoes of an imagined North-American protagonist going through a typical day. The narrative device – a second-person story constrained to a single day – serves the author well in delivering an enjoyable introduction to the laws of physics, using technology and experiences the reader might be familiar with. Your day (and the book) begins with the morning alarm, and Kakalios uses the subject of timekeeping to segue into a deeper conversation about frequencies and electricity generation. The stage is set, and the reader knows what to expect through the rest of the book.

Using examples of everyday technology, from toasters to aeroplanes, Kakalios introduces the reader to concepts such as energy conversion and conservation laws, as well as the physics principles behind aviation and medical devices, with occasional nods to chemical processes, which slightly expands the title and scope of the book. He also uses helpful analogies to tie macro phenomena with micro ones. I particularly enjoyed the way Kakalios used traffic jams to explain the behaviour of molecules in gases and liquids. He then used these molecules to explain why traffic flows the way it does: a lower density of vehicles on the road is akin to a very dilute gas, Kakalios points out, while at higher densities the flow of traffic resembles collective phenomena such as waves on the sea. When he remarks, “Physics says that traffic would be forever smooth and easy, if only we could get rid of drivers,” you might find yourself nodding in agreement, awaiting the day self-driving cars will rescue us from bumper-to-bumper commutes.

The writing is clear and inviting, allowing you to immerse yourself in the world created by the author. The text alternates between narration and exposition without distracting interruptions, though sometimes it can read a little like a textbook. And even though the book is US-centric it is not jarringly so; readers from elsewhere in the world will not struggle to identify with the book’s protagonist. The more you read, the more you are drawn into the world Kakalios paints, and you begin to ask yourself what concepts of physics he has chosen not to discuss with you in a particular context.

Kakalios does a commendable job of recognizing the ways in which physics manifests itself in seemingly mundane objects and injects his own enthusiasm for the subject into his writing. And even when he addresses subject matter that appears to be well-trodden territory, he is able to bring a fresh perspective, as he does when discussing the hypothetical of our favourite and familiar frictionless pendulum, and how it relates to the production of electromagnetic waves. But beyond such idealized examples, much of what might seem mundane today certainly felt like science fiction not too long ago. So Kakalios allows himself the indulgence of addressing both the “why” and the “why not” of speculative science fiction through the lens of the DeLorean time machine of the Back to the Future movies.

The book draws to a close as your day does, and all talk of cycles in nature manifests itself in the protagonist returning to the clock, to set an alarm for the next day. Although I did not have access 20 years ago to a lot of the technology discussed in this book, 10-year-old me would have pored over every little detail in the book and dug up the corresponding entries in an encyclopaedia. This is something to bear in mind: this book strikes a good balance between covering the basics and delving into detailed descriptions, but is by no means comprehensive and is certainly not meant to replace formal textbooks on the subject.

The Physics of Everyday Things is a welcome addition to any bookshelf: the engaging writing style is perfect for the casual physics enthusiast and the examples discussed will prove valuable to those who discuss physics with non-specialists. Perhaps we could all benefit from giving a little thought to the wonderful world of physics that surrounds us and look for everyday instances that evoke that sense of wonder.