Category Archives: Science

Robert L. Wolke – What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

Robert L. Wolke – What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

A book-length series of bite-size vignettes on food science; fans of the celebrity chef Alton Brown will find much to like here. For example, if Teflon doesn’t stick to anything, how does it stick to a non-stick pan? The pan surface is roughened at a micro-level by either blasting it with tiny droplets of molten metal (stainless steel pans) or DuPont’s Autograph process (aluminum pans), and these tiny rough teeth hold onto the Teflon molecules and keep them in place.

Why is water boiled in a microwave not as hot as water boiled in a tea kettle? Because the microwaves only penetrate about an inch into the water, while a tea kettle takes better advantage of convection to heat the entire body of water more evenly. Heated water rises, pushing cooler water to the bottom. It then itself gets heated, and then rises up, and so on. Bubbles also aid the convection process.

Wolke, a chemist, also goes into nutrition science, explaining at a molecular level the different types of fats, sugars, and oils. He explains what makes some foods tasty, how they can be ruined, and why fish doesn’t have to smell fishy—they actually have a neutral odor while alive, but begin to decay extremely quickly in air, so they gain that fishy smell just a few hours  after being caught. At this point they are not toxic, just smelly, so don’t worry about it too much while grocery shopping.

Though I enjoy foodie-style culinary experiences, I’m not exactly a food sophisticate. Material like this makes me a better cook even for everyday meals because knowing why something works means I’ll remember it far better than rote memorization of the what, without greater context. In that sense, Wolke’s book is not just entertaining, but useful.


Jennifer Wright – Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

Jennifer Wright – Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

Wright has an irreverent, slightly offbeat sense of humor that is perfect for her topic, reminding me a bit of a more restrained Mary Roach. Wright takes a mostly chronological tour of disease, starting with the Antonine plague in ancient Rome, up through the bubonic plague, and on to the present day. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was oddly fashionable, in much the same way that the sunken, desiccated features associated with heroin chic are stylish today among fashion models. It was a glamorous disease, except that it very much wasn’t. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine get a chapter, and Wright discusses the depth of the anti-Semitism he faced.

The chapter on encephalitis lethargica was poignant. The disease, which briefly flared up in the 1910s and 1920s, would essentially turn its victims into bed-bound, non-responsive zombies for years, and in some cases decades. The neurologist Oliver Sacks was able to revive some of his patients, who had no memories from after falling ill. One woman who fell ill during the 1920s flapper craze at age 21 woke up in 1960s an old woman, still exhibiting 1920s-era speech patterns and with no life experiences beyond early adulthood. Worse, Sacks’ treatments only worked for a few years. Patients would eventually revert to their former state, their revival a temporary one. Was it worth it? Different patients may have had different answers to that question.

Wright’s treatment of syphilis and other STDs, on the other hand, is often hilarious. The most recent major plague, HIV/AIDS, is less humorous, but is on track to have a happier ending, though not without millions of lives being destroyed first, and with social conservatives causing their usual intended harm.

Brian Switek – Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

Brian Switek – Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

A wide-ranging history of fossilized life, from early marine life to modern man, full of insights and a little bit of mirth that makes for more fun than one would expect in a book about fossils. Switek is a dinosaur specialist, so dinosaurs figure more prominently than perhaps they should. But post-Cretaceous chapters use elephants, horses, and other mammals to illustrate how evolution works, how archaeologists can suss out surprising details from fossils, including the color of dinosaur feathers and how well some species were likely able to hear.

Richard P. Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman 

Richard P. Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman 

Feynman’s view on women are, shall we say, rather dated. And some of the material also appears in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”. But this collection of speeches and articles has both entertainment value and educational value. Feynman valued working smart as much as he did working hard, and he had some ingenious shortcuts, as well as shortcuts for finding mental shortcuts. His views on pedagogy and education are also refreshingly open-minded. Some structure is good, but too much does harm.

Steve Brusatte – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Steve Brusatte – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

A history of the dinosaurs organized chronologically rather than by theme, and in my opinion, better than Brian Switek’s still-quite-good My Beloved Bronosaurus. Brusatte shares Switek’s mostly endearing fanboy enthusiasm for his subject, and recounts a few stories of meeting and even working with some of his idols.

Brusatte traces dinosaurs’ origins back to the Permian extinction, and more clearly differentiates the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. One thing that comes out of chronological approach is that evolution doesn’t have a clear direction. Things change, but not necessarily for better or worse over time.

The Jurassic’s apex predator was the Allosaurus, and the Cretaceous’ was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. They had their differences, and Brusatte does an excellent job describing them, and tracing back their family tree—they are more cousins than a direct lineage. T-Rex’s direct ancestor was likely a mid-Jurassic dinosaur that weighed about 100 pounds, and grew into its niche after the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary created an opening for a large apex predator.

Another fun insight has to do with dinosaur breathing. The large sauropods such as the diplodocus, brachiosaurs, and Argentine titanosaurs could exceed 100 feet in length and required an enormous amount of energy. Not just to maintain their bulk, but to grow it. It likely took just 30 or 40 years for a sauropod to reach full size. By contrast, humans can take nearly 20 years to grow from a similar starting point to perhaps 6 feet. This required eating about 100 pounds of food every day, which required a massive, and efficient respiratory system to provide enough oxygen to burn all that fuel and power the digestive system—all while constantly providing enough oxygen for cells from head-to-tail.

Rather than lungs such as we and smaller dinosaurs share, sauropods evolved a different kind of lung found in today’s birds. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Sauropod and bird lungs extract oxygen on the inhale as well, but extract a second round of oxygen on the exhale as well, making them more efficient. This allowed sauropods to meet their needs. This design is also lightweight, which is why birds use it—it’s easier to fly with less cargo.

Sauropod bones were also relatively less dense. While not hollow, they did feature hollow chambers and air pockets inside—not quite like a honeycomb structure seen in high-tech aircraft material designs, but serving the same purpose of preserving strength while minimizing weight. If giant lumbering sauropod dinosaurs had not evolved adaptations to their niche in both respiration and bone structure, today’s graceful hummingbirds may never have evolved as we know them.

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

John Harrison gets his due. Even now his name is virtually unknown, but he made one of the most important discoveries in the history of exploration—how to find longitude. It’s easy to find one’s latitude. If you can see the North Star, you’re in the northern hemisphere. The higher up in the sky it is, the farther north you are. Ditto for the Southern Cross and other features in the southern hemisphere’s night key.

Longitude is also easy in concept—just compare when noon local time is with noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and you’ll know exactly how far east or west you are. The trouble is that building a clock that kept accurate time while enduring rough shipboard conditions was impossible for all of human history. Everyone from Phoenician sailors on up through Columbus and Magellan had no idea what longitudes their discoveries were located at. They could only guess, and they often did a lousy job of it.

The key to finding accurate longitude was a centuries-long pop culture joke, similar to pre-1969 “they’ll put a man on the moon before that happens” jokes. The longitude joke’s currency ended in the mid-1700s when a watchmaker named John Harrison, spurred on by a £20,000 prize sponsored by the Royal Society, invented a series of clocks that were finally up to the task.

Sobel tells the story masterfully, setting up the history of the problem and why it matters, the origins of the Royal Society and prizes for inventions, the significance of the Scientific Revolution, John Harrison’s life story and his chase of the prize, and fascinating descriptions of the materials and craftsmanship that went into Harrison’s remarkable inventions. He made five clocks, each outdoing the last, though H-4, as it is known, is the most famous.

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

A joint biography of Galileo and his daughter, and a good history of early modern Italy and the Scientific Revolution. Galileo had three children, all illegitimate. He was in a loving lifelong relationship, but social conventions of the time said that academics could not marry. As a result, Galileo’s children grew up under an unjust stigma and were denied opportunities they might otherwise have had. Both of his daughters ended up in convents. One of them, the well-named Maria Celeste (think celestial, and remember that Galileo was an astronomer), inherited her father’s intellect. Though she was not allowed to put her gifts to much use, she was about as accomplished as a woman in her time was allowed to be—though almost entirely uncredited, naturally.

She also left behind a long trail of correspondence with her father, from which Sobel quotes extensively. From this, Sobel tells Maria Celeste’s life story, and Galileo’s, goes into the science of his discoveries, and, for good measure, gives a cultural history of the time. Sobel gives a good flavor of what daily life was like in convents, in universities, in the town and in the country, and how repressive medieval religion was for men and women alike. Women got the short end of an already short stick.