Review of The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by

Book cover for The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

I really loved James Kakalios’ The Physics of Superheroes, so I jumped at the chance to get his new book, The Physics of Everyday Things, when it became available on NetGalley. The Physics of Superheroes was such an engaging way to look at physics! I was intrigued by this new concept, the idea that Kakalios would teach us physics while stepping through a single person’s ordinary daily activities. However, the tone and conceptual density of this book leave it somewhat lacklustre compared to my (admittedly faded) memory of the first book of his.

The Physics of Everyday Things starts with waking up and making breakfast and ends with a business presentation and a trip back to a hotel. Along the way, our protagonist drives through toll booths, has an x-ray, goes through airport security, takes a flight, and engages in all sorts of activities that rely on our society’s exploitation of physics. Kakalios pulls the curtain back on the technology we depend on, and the secrets he reveals really are quite fascinating.

One of my enduring understandings, particularly from taking a Philosophy of Science and Technology course back in university, is how artificially we separate different types of technology in our minds. For example, a pencil or a pen are technologies. Chairs are technology. My glasses are a technology—and assistive technology, at that. These things are so ubiquitous, cheap, and reliable that they have faded into the background noise of life. Vehicles are more recognizable as technology, or as a collection of technologies, but are also so much a part of our life that we tend to think of them differently. Digital tech—that is, something with a computer somewhere in its guts—is almost always what people think of nowadays when they hear “technology”. Yet so many technologies that once were analog are now digital and computerized, from toasters to clocks, not to mention the scary and possibly doomed Internet of Things.

Kakalios engages with a lot of digital technologies in The Physics of Everyday Things, from credit card readers and wireless communications to touchscreens and LCD projectors. However, he also highlights technology we take for granted, or technology that it might never occur to us to question how it works. One of my favourite examples might be an explosive trace detector, as seen in airport security screenings. Kakalios explains how the machine ionizes and then measures the rate at which gas molecules make it through a test chamber to determine what type of molecule it’s dealing with. That’s really neat and not something I would ever have considered. Similarly, I loved his explanations of comparably simpler phenomena, like the fact that coils in things like toasters (not to mention microwave ovens) mean we are cooking with light.

So as a reader of popular science, this book admirably ticks the “chock full of scientific information” box. There are also diagrams!

Where I struggled was more with Kakalios’ patter. He explains things very well; I didn’t often feel lost or confused or in too deep. Yet I just wasn’t … invested. At all. I didn’t care about the gimmick—I’m not saying it’s a bad gimmick, but I just have no connection to this unnamed hypothetical person whose day we’re stalking. It didn’t enhance my reading experience; I feel like if the book had just said, “Hey, we’re going to explain how these x number of inventions work!” I would have enjoyed it more.

I have a theory for why this didn’t hold my interest, though I’m not sure it’s true. Most of the popular science books I read examine science with a historical mindset. The authors explain scientific and technological discoveries and innovations by talking about the people and circumstances that led to them. The Physics of Everyday Things notably retains the spatial location of a technology (where we use it) but strips the temporal aspect (its history and invention). Kakalios doesn’t often mention who came up with an idea, who discovered how to use something, why a particular technology took off. And so I realize that maybe I enjoy the history of science as much as the science itself (it’s this damn unicorn math/English brain again). But it’s hard to test this theory, because I think Kakalios’ book stands out in this regard.

And so, maybe, if you’re not so much into the history of inventions and just want to know how they work, this book might be your jam. It is also the right length—I’m finding that with some of these non-fiction books I’m reading electronically, that percent count never seems to increase as fast as I’d like, no matter how fast I’m reading. The Physics of Everyday Things isn’t long, but it’s dense enough to be educational.

Would I recommend this? Conditionally. I can’t get as excited about it as I can with other science books. I’m not sure a casual reader is going to pick this up and read it cover-to-cover. But for a DIY-type person, a hardware enthusiast who likes to get their hands dirty but lacks the scientific background on the subject, this could be a cool exploration of these topics.

Engagement

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