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A Self-Help Book of Science

Diana Lutz

The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life. Jay Ingram. xii + 211 pp. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005. (First published by Viking Canada in 2003.) $25.

The Velocity of Honey's 24 chapters are short meditations on questions that are probably never going to make the cover of Science or Nature, such as why toast falls butter side down and why time seems to speed up as we grow older. You might call them crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded—they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse. In fact, author Jay Ingram calls The Velocity of Honey "a self-help book." Its essays "reduce stress," he says, and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life."

Ingram, who hosts the Discovery Channel's science program Daily Planet, says he picked the topics for their appeal—adding with characteristic self-irony that this means their appeal to him. Somehow, he says, that turned out to mean there is a lot of physics and psychology and not much in between. (Ingram himself has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto.) The physics chapters include, in addition to tumbling toast, essays on the way paper crumples and crackles when it is squeezed, the aerodynamics of the maple key (the thin fibrous "wing" that encases the maple seed), the tricky behavior of stones thrown slantwise across water or sand, and the motion across ice of the 20-kilo granite "rocks" used in the sport of curling.

The chapter about curling, which is one of my favorites, asks a beguilingly simple question. An upside-down drinking glass, rotating clockwise as it slides down a bar, begins to curve left. Why, then, does the curling rock curve right under similar circumstances? This question is harder to answer than you might think. The mechanism might have to do with the build-up of ice chips under the rock as it plows across the ice, which could conceivably also be what makes it growl (yes, rocks growl), but nobody knows for sure.

The psychology essays typically explore quirky subjective experiences of the sort that fascinated the time-obsessed and neurasthenic Marcel Proust. Can you make yourself wake up at a predetermined time? Why does the trip to someplace you've never visited before seem to take longer than the trip back? Do you have a sixth sense that allows you to perceive objects in your path even in total darkness? (The answer to that one is yes; if you want to know how it works, try hissing while you move your hand slowly closer to your face.)

My favorite psychology chapter is one that asks why, as we get older, the years seem to go by faster and faster. Carefully designed experiments suggest there is actually an explanation for this annoying impression. As we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Depressing as this may be for those of us long past the subjective midpoint of our lives (which turns out to be about 20 for someone who lives to be 80), it could be worse. Ingram describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock who quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television nattered on faster than he could follow.

Because the questions it discusses have been simmering on the back burner of science for a long time, The Velocity of Honey can usefully draw on research done in the 1950s and 1960s as well as in the last six months. Ingram was clearly delighted to find that Lazzaro Spallanzani (the 18th-century scientist who studied spontaneous generation in flasks of boiled hay) had published an investigation of skipping stones that still holds up today. At a time when a Web page has an average lifetime of less than two months and science books on hot topics are outdated before they reach the stores, it is a relief to read science stories that unfold at a more human pace.

But the greatest attraction of The Velocity of Honey is Ingram's intelligent but gentle, even self-deprecating, personality. Maybe I'm getting old, but I"m increasingly reluctant to buy a book by a brash young man who wants to buttonhole me and convince me that science is dead or everything bad is good for me. I'd rather spend the time with someone who asks me with a twinkle in his eye whether I'd venture to guess why toast always falls butter side down.

By the way, toast wouldn't tumble if it were about an inch across, and it would land butter side up if the table were three meters tall.

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