Storm in A Teacup
The Physics of Everyday LifeBook - 2017
Our home here on Earth is messy, mutable, and full of humdrum things that we touch and modify without much thought every day. But these familiar surroundings are just the place to look if you're interested in what makes the universe tick. In Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski provides the tools to alter the way we see everything around us by linking ordinary objects and occurrences, like popcorn popping, coffee stains, and fridge magnets, to big ideas like climate change, the energy crisis, or innovative medical testing. She guides us through the principles of gases ("Explosions in the kitchen are generally considered a bad idea. But just occasionally a small one can produce something delicious"); gravity (drop some raisins in a bottle of carbonated lemonade and watch the whoosh of bubbles and the dancing raisins at the bottom bumping into each other); size (Czerski explains the action of the water molecules that cause the crime-scene stain left by a puddle of dried coffee); and time (why it takes so long for ketchup to come out of a bottle).
Along the way, she provides answers to vexing questions: How does water travel from the roots of a redwood tree to its crown? How do ducks keep their feet warm when walking on ice? Why does milk, when added to tea, look like billowing storm clouds? In an engaging voice at once warm and witty, Czerski shares her stunning breadth of knowledge to lift the veil of familiarity from the ordinary. You may never look at your toaster the same way.
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My blueberry jam was pink because the boiled blueberries were acting as a saucepan-sized litmus test.
A sperm whale has twice as much haemoglobin as a human, and about ten times as much myoglobin (the protein used to store energy in the muscles).
Bread bakers, like physicists, don’t care which molecules hit which walls at particular speeds, because this is a game of statistics. At room temperature and atmospheric pressure, 29 per cent of them are travelling between 350 and 500 metres per second, and it doesn’t matter which ones they are.
That means that if you draw a circle 50 cm in diameter on the floor, the push of the air on just that bit of floor is also equal to the weight of a 2,000 kg rhino.
Even with a perfect vacuum pump instead of lungs, you couldn’t drink through a vertical straw that was longer than 10.2 metres, because our atmosphere can’t push water any higher than that.
The same bit of physics that makes popcorn pop also makes the weather work.
I found one of those 2-litre plastic bottles of cheap fizzy lemonade, took the label off, and then put the bottle on the middle of the table. This new madness was watched with quiet interest, but I had their attention, so I took the cap off and dropped the entire handful of raisins into the bottle.
The same mechanism causing raisins to dance in lemonade is also driving the vast oceans of the Earth on their slow journey around the planet.
There is just you and a planet with a mass of 6 million billion billion kg, linked only by this thing called gravity, ...
if you take identically sized cans of a fizzy drink, one diet version and one with a full load of sugar, you’ll see that the diet can floats in fresh water and the other one sinks.
An egg that’s about a week old will sink but stand up on the pointy end (so that the additional air is closer to the surface). And if the egg floats completely, it’s been around for a bit too long – have something else for breakfast!
It’s been estimated that the average candle flame produces 1.5 million nanodiamonds each second.
When we say ‘heat rises’, that’s not quite true. It’s more that ‘cooler fluid sinks as it wins the gravitational battle’. But no one thanks you for pointing that out.
To make a standard full household bath as salty as the ocean, you need to add about 10 kg of salt, a large bucketful. A whole bucket, just for one bath!
From the North Atlantic, it flows southwards along the bottom of the ocean at a few centimetres per second, and after a thousand years it reaches its first obstacle: Antarctica. Unable to creep further south, it turns to the east as it meets the Southern Ocean. … it eventually finds its way back to the surface, after perhaps 1,600 years without a single sunbeam passing through it. … It’s called the thermohaline circulation: ‘thermo’ for heat, and ‘haline’ because of the salt.
If you’ve ever sat in a town square and watched pigeons strut around in search of food, you’ll have noticed that their heads bob backwards and forwards as they walk.
A group of researchers at Harvard, led by Professor George Whitesides, is on the case. They have engineered diagnostic test kits about the size of a postage stamp, made of paper, but containing a maze of water-loving paper channels with waxed water-hating walls. When you touch a drop of blood or urine to the correct part of the paper, capillary action drags it through the main channel, splits it up and reroutes it to lots of different test zones. Each one contains the ingredients to do a different biological test, and each reservoir will change colour depending on the test results.
And this is what we walk around in every day. Zooming past our heads are overlapping ripples from phones, wifi networks, radio stations, the Sun, heaters and remote controls. And those are just the light waves. On top of that is the sound: the deep rumbles of the Earth, jazz music, dog whistles and the ultrasound being used to clean the instruments in a local dental surgery. And then the ripples on the cup of tea as we blow on it to cool it, ocean waves, and the undulations of the surface of the Earth itself from the occasional earthquake. And more.
It starts when one optimist picks up the ketchup and just holds it upside down over the bowl of chips. Nothing ever happens, but almost no one skips this step.
If you watch a snail moving, you won’t see very much because the outer rim of its foot is just moving at a constant slow speed.
If you stand at the equator, you’re 21 km further away from the centre of the planet than someone at the North Pole is. Our planet is held together by gravity but shaped by its spin. And so even though Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, the top of Everest is not the furthest point from the centre of the Earth. That accolade goes to Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador. Its summit is only 6,268 metres above sea level (Everest is 8,848 metres tall by the same measure), but it’s sitting right on top of the equatorial bulge.
If you wander past the fish counter at a supermarket and look at what’s on offer, what you see is mostly silver. The exceptions to the rule are tropical fish like red mullet and red snapper, and the bottom-dwelling fish such as sole and flounder.
Various people have conducted experiments where they have patiently pushed toast off tables many times, and it really does fall butter-side down far more often than it falls butter-side up.
Most of us, however, find it very uncomfortable even to think about being really cold. So watching ducks waddle about barefoot on ice can be very puzzling.
A trebuchet could hurl 100-kg rocks over hundreds of metres. Siege engines like this contributed to the disappearance of motte-and-bailey castles (strategically useful but made only of wood and earth).
A human body is a vast coordinated collection of cells, about 37 trillion of them last time anyone tried to count, each one a tiny factory. Every single cell needs supplies, but it also needs a safe environment, with the right temperature, pH and moisture level.
As glaciers and ice sheets melt, water that was locked up on land is flowing back into the sea, so there’s more water in the global ocean. But that accounts for only approximately half of the current rise. The other half comes from thermal expansion.
Next time you’re at or near an airport, take a look at the large signs at the start of each runway. Every runway around the world is labelled by a number, which is its direction in degrees from north, divided by ten.
The direction of the Earth’s magnetic field seemed to reverse every few hundred thousand years. It completely flipped, so that south became north and north became south. It didn’t seem to matter too much, but it was very odd.
Magnets are pushed past wires, and so movement energy is transferred into electrical current. The beauty of a wind turbine is that this is as raw as it gets; the wind turns magnets which generate current. In a coal-fired plant, water is heated to turn a steam turbine, which turns magnets.
Our bodies are immense machines; even a single cell might contain a billion molecules, and there are around 10 million million (10^13) cells in our body. We need impressive signalling and transport systems to coordinate all these constituent parts, and that coordination takes time. No human has ‘lightning reactions’, because the cost of our wonderful complexity is the huge amount of time it takes us to get anything done. The shortest time that we can appreciate is approximately the blink of an eye (about a third of a second), but in that time millions of proteins have been built inside us and billions of ions have diffused across our nerve synapses, while the simpler world outside our bodies has just been getting on with things.
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