Short takes on three books
PHYSICS DEMONSTRATIONS: A Sourcebook for Teachers of Physics. Julien Clinton Sprott. University of Wisconsin Press, $45.
Julien Clinton Sprott clearly enjoys his work as a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and as a public lecturer. In Physics Demonstrations, a cookbook of sorts, Sprott shares some of his tricks of the trade. One of these is to wear an ostentatious tuxedo when doing such things as setting a dollar bill ablaze without scorching it (by first immersing it in a mixture of alcohol and water) or demonstrating the Bernoulli effect (perhaps using a balloon and a hair dryer, as shown at right).
Although some of the experiments Sprott describes are old mainstays of Physics 101—say, listening to the beats of a pair of tuning forks—others are far more inspired. For example, Sprott explains how to show the period-doubling route to chaos with nothing more elaborate than a water faucet and a pie tin. Throughout, he sprinkles a generous dose of humor: In describing how to start a fire with friction, he suggests you use a wooden dowel and a drill press to do so, and then "point out that if you were ever lost in the woods, you could make a fire this way if you had a drill press handy." Tucked into the back cover of the book are two DVDs featuring Sprott entertaining audiences with his demonstrations.
The wealth of ideas and techniques presented more than makes up for shortcomings in the way the underlying physical principles are sometimes described. As Sprott points out, those principles are covered well in many textbooks. So next time you're looking for ways to entertain your dinner guests with an impromptu physics demonstration in the kitchen, you might want to reach for this amusing collection.—David Schneider
COMMUNICATING SCIENCE: A Practical Guide. Pierre Laszlo. Springer, $29.95 (paper).
Pierre Laszlo, emeritus professor of chemistry at the École polytechnique and the University of Liège, has been keeping notes—and not just on organic syntheses. A prolific author of essays, books and plays as well as scholarly articles, Laszlo knows a thing or two about the challenging but central aspect of science called communication—and like a good chemist, he has now collected and published his notes in a manual. Communicating Science is a handbook for the helpless scientist. It is organized for emergency use; there's even a quick index in the back with entries such as "accessories: glass of water" and "how to: deal with hecklers." In his coverage of topics ranging from technical writing to media interviews, Laszlo conveys a lifetime of experience in advice both pithy and provocative. I cannot argue with his taste: He holds up American Scientist essayists as models and urges scientists to get along with editors. And he would approve of the type conveying these words to you. Serifs, he notes, "are the small slippers which letters bear on their feet." To keep the viewer's eye moving along the type in a slide presentation, Laszlo would forgo sans serif fonts, "however sexy they may look," and supply slippers.—Rosalind Reid
PLANET EARTH: As You've Never Seen It Before. Alastair Fothergill. University of California Press, $39.95.
Planet Earth is a coffee-table-sized companion volume to an 11-part television series that will have its U.S. premiere on March 25, 2007, on the Discovery Channel. The author is series producer Alastair Fothergill. Text and photographs are grouped according to biome, beginning with the planet as a whole and then moving from polar regions, forests, plains, deserts, mountains and caves to fresh water, rain forests, shallow seas and ocean depths. Putting nature's beauty and majestic scope on display appears to be the main goal—the text does not include scientific names and for the most part ignores the conservation problems besetting the planet. The photographs chiefly emphasize animals, a vertebrate-centric perspective that may put off those interested in other organisms.
I particularly liked the section on caves, called "The Underworld," with its enjoyable digressions on geology and caving, and its spectacular photographs of huge selenite crystals, some of which are more than eight meters long. But the photographs in "the open ocean depths" section are perhaps the book's strongest (not unexpectedly, given that Fothergill produced the acclaimed television series Blue Planet). They include the image at right of a sea angel, a type of pteropod—a lowly mollusk related to slugs and snails that has delicate "wings" to help it stay in position in the water column. Its near-transparency is a form of camouflage.—Roger Harris