A Self-Help Book of Science
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
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
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
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.