Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Salon: Inflight Science by Brian Clegg

I've had a good week of reading. Yesterday I finished this popular science book, and in the days before finished a couple of Japanese novels. At the moment I am revisiting ancient Greece and reading Herodotus's Histories - which I am finding hilarious.

But back to the book I finished yesterday. I shall start with a quote: 'the dog is the oldest piece of highly developed technology still in active use.'

This, I think, is a good example of the entertaining style Brian Clegg adopts in his latest book Inflight Science - which was book of the week in the Times recently, and has had a great review by Alain de Botton in the Mail on Sunday.

I love to fly, and having read this book I think I'll find the experience even more rewarding. This book explains a lot of little questions and suspicions that have been bothering me, albeit subconsciously, for some time. Why, for instance, are some of the departure gates so difficult to find? And are those puny-looking flaps I see opening and shutting on the wing really an important part of the flying mechanism of the plane, and if so, what exactly do they do?

Manchester Airport

After spending some time in the departure lounge, and considering such things as radar and other tracking systems (where I incidentally discovered the origin of the idea that carrots help you see in the dark), the book moves on to take-off and explains the logistics of the runway, and the reason for all those mysterious pings and lights I always hear when I ascend into the air. It deals with air currents and lift, and makes what for me could be a dull topic amazingly interesting. Brian Clegg does this by relating it to things I see in my everyday life: the circulation of water as it drains down the plug hole, for instance, and whether this spiral is the same on either sides of the equator, and why. He also presents boxed 'experiments' - small practical experiments (some of which are definitely better done on terra firma) which add to the fun of finding out.

Once up in the air he explains why the cabin pressure drops to the same level as Mexico City; a fact which has many repercussions which I didn't realise, but now makes perfect sense. Looking through the window I learn, amusingly, how the brain is like a river basin, how the formation of an ox-bow lake is like an ice skater spinning on ice, the debunking of crop circles and why the ancient Greeks had no word for the blueness of the sky.

The Himalayas from my cabin window

Turning to the atmosphere the book explains exactly why dark clouds produce rain, the origin of the expression 'on cloud 9', why Newton saw seven colours in the rainbow, and is most reassuring about turbulence, which always scares me to death.

There is a particularly good section on jet lag, why it happens (pointing out the relatively recent adoption of time zones) and unexpectedly recommends both homeopathy and aromatherapy as 'cures' - but not for the reasons you might expect. Brian Clegg also explains why airplane food has less taste, how the toilet on an airplane works (again allaying dire suction fears), and why the lights are dimmed just before landing.

Dawn from my cabin window

The book also devotes a little time to explaining things I thought I already knew about (as an ex-science teacher) but I enjoyed hearing about again. I often find that another explanation us enhances my understanding, especially when the explanation is so clear as it is here: why planes fly in a great circle, for instance, or how an LCD works, and why it is colder at the top of a mountain, white ice is blue, and the formation of the Himalayas caused a series of ace ages. I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of how brains trick us into thinking the moon is big and how using counting the number of streetlights can be used to estimate population.

Hong Kong airport

Altogether, an excellent example of popular science writing - informative and very enjoyable at the same time. I highly recommend. I'm hoping to interview Brian Clegg in the near future.


Blogger Sue Guiney said...

I love Brian's work and am eagerly awaiting my copy. By the way, I'm writing this from, not surprisingly, yet another airport lounge! Man, do I need this book.

Sun Apr 17, 12:29:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, sounds like you do, Sue! It's really good - I learnt a lot!

Sun Apr 17, 12:38:00 pm  
Blogger Laurel-Rain Snow said...

This sounds like something I should read, since I have many fears about flying...and go into each flight "white knuckling."


Sun Apr 17, 04:14:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

This would keep you distracted, Laurel-Rain - it's a very reassuring book, too!

Sun Apr 17, 04:18:00 pm  
Anonymous marly youmans said...

Yes, I had a few bad flights and don't like it much anymore--although better once I'm on than just before. I probably would like that conversation about turbulence!

Great little reader-response: really makes us want to know the answers. I hope you interview him; you always have such good questions.

Sun Apr 17, 09:27:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Marly, I'd recommend this book to anyone going on a flight - it is comforting and interesting at the same time. I hope you have a good flight over. Not long now!

Sun Apr 17, 11:08:00 pm  

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