The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James KakaliosThe Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary DayMay 16, 2017 by James KakaliosThe Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios

James Kakalios structures his popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day (2017), around following a person through a typical day and stopping periodically to explain the science (particularly obviously, the physics) behind the technology the person uses and/or engages with, such as a hotel keycard, a toaster, an LED TV, a copier machine and so forth. Both the explanations and the structure succeed to a mixed degree, and while I found at the end the book to be informative and generally rewarding, its style and structure seemed to work against its task of popularizing science/tech for the masses.

The structure’s issues tend to be that following a person progressively through their day gives a sense of chronological order, but little else. In other words, not much is gained. On the flip side, what is lost is a sense of thematic or logical structure, meaning our dips into various technologies not only feel random but at times are also repetitive in nature, as two techs that the “you” of the book interacts with at different times might make use of the same basic scientific principles, and so we get an overlapping discussion, if not to the same depth or degree. Following a person through a day is a cute idea that one might think humanizes the topic, but it turns out better in concept than execution or effect.

A larger issue is that the science here can get pretty dense. At times he assumes probably a greater knowledge of basic terms and concepts than many readers (and probably most people in general) have. And even when he explains terms in easy-to-digest fashion, sometimes the explanation would have been better as prelude rather than epilogue to whatever topic is being discussion as sometimes is the case. I’m not a scientist, but regularly read popularizing science works, and I definitely had to work at The Physics of Everyday Things, rereading several passages multiple times to be sure I understood what he was getting at. Beyond some further breaking down of terms/concepts and simpler language, more illustrations would also have definitely helped (it’s possible my ARC copy simply lacked them and that the published version has more).

And the language can sometimes form a thicket of its own. Some of Kakalios’ metaphors work quite well (a theater metaphor in particular), but others, I’d say, fog things up more than they enlighten. And even when the prose is fluid and clear, I can’t say it’s ever particularly engaging.

Despite all these issues, and despite The Physics of Everyday Things feeling a bit betwixt and between (maybe too dense for those who know very little science and unnecessary for those who do), there’s not doubt that having put in some work, I came away better informed about how my day to day tech works. So it’s a net positive, but I wish it were more definitely so.

Published in 2017. Physics professor, bestselling author, and dynamic storyteller James Kakalios reveals the mind-bending science behind the seemingly basic things that keep our daily lives running, from our smart phones and digital “clouds” to x-ray machines and hybrid vehicles. Most of us are clueless when it comes to the physics that makes our modern world so convenient. What’s the simple science behind motion sensors, touch screens, and toasters? How do we glide through tolls using an E-Z Pass, or find our way to new places using GPS?  In The Physics of Everyday Things, James Kakalios takes us on an amazing journey into the subatomic marvels that underlie so much of what we use and take for granted. Breaking down the world of things into a single day, Kakalios engages our curiosity about how our refrigerators keep food cool, how a plane manages to remain airborne, and how our wrist fitness monitors keep track of our steps. Each explanation is coupled with a story revealing the interplay of the astonishing invisible forces that surround us. Through this “narrative physics,” The Physics of Everyday Things demonstrates that—far from the abstractions conjured by terms like the Higgs Boson, black holes, and gravity waves—sophisticated science is also quite practical. With his signature clarity and inventiveness, Kakalios ignites our imaginations and enthralls us with the principles that make up our lives.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I like the idea of investigating the physics of common items/habits, but restricting it to a single day sounds like it would lead to repetition — as you point out. That’s a shame.

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