The cool stuff about atoms: Ask your questions

Chris Woodford's Atoms Under the Floorboards explores the science of everyday life in an engaging new way


Debarghya Sanyal
Chris Woodford
Bloomsbury Sigma
288 pages; $27

Remember Magic School Bus? The Dead Famous series? The Pocket Science series? For all those going dewy-eyed at the mention of these old "science-is-fun" books, Chris Woodford's Atoms Under the Floorboards will prove a highly nostalgic read.

Of the several things that defined the late 1990s and early 2000s the phrase "science-is-fun" is sure to ring a bell with those who grew up in these pre-Tony Stark years. Amid a new-found love for encyclopaedias, televised quiz shows, online flash-games, science-entertainment channels (Discovery and National Geographic) and annual science fairs in school, this era silently impressed upon us a simple fact: science is not to be found only in laboratories but everywhere around us. All one needs to do is ask questions. And yes, the most ridiculous-seeming questions would do just fine.

Questions such as, "Why does glue stick?" or "Is there a right or wrong way to stir your tea?" - these are questions that pepper Mr Woodford's 300-page guide to everyday science.

In his latest attempt at making complex scientific theories easily understandable the author of How Cool Stuff Works and Cool Stuff Exploded returns to the basics. Mr Woodford asks questions so obvious they often seem absurd. Why can we never blow all dust off a bookshelf? Why does sunlight makes clothes look brighter? How much cheese does one need to nibble before a round of golf?

The reader is bound to get puzzled at first, then intrigued and ultimately hooked as the book hurtles past theories in physics and biology as well as civil, mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering.

Using the modern house as a spring board, Mr Woodford launches into a study of automobiles, adhesives, telecommunications, beverages, daily chores and much more. Each chapter also corresponds neatly with one or more of a specific field of scientific study, like simple machines, force, electromagnetism, energy and so on. The author manages to build a simple loosely connected sequence between each of the chapters and yet ensure that the chapters need not be read in a specific order.

In an era where mind-numbing science theories come wrapped in engaging plotlines and dazzling special effects, connecting to one's readers with a non-fiction "fun and facts" approach can be daunting. Someone who has worked on titles like Science: A Children's Encyclopaedia and Exploring Earth and Space Science and operates a dedicated science educational website (Explain That Stuff) is sure to know the challenges.

No wonder, then, that Mr Woodford takes a different approach from any of the classics in the genre. Instead of tackling the theory first and then simplifying it with examples, he would rather address a mundane phenomenon and then work towards explaining the basic theory behind it. Once he has addressed the broader concepts, he returns to a few more intricate parts. This guarantees plenty of "oh-i-never-knew-that" moments, without the usual brain-wracking.

His choice of examples, too, reflects this urge to provide a fresh look at daily science. Everything from salty fish and chips to droopy underwear employs the science of atoms, Mr Woodford tells us. Only we never thought about it this way.

Another aspect of the book that makes it ideal for light reading is the language. The author largely avoids tricky math formulae and tongue-twisting terminologies. Even when he does employ one of these, he provides ample analogies and anecdotes to ease the reader's understanding (the endnotes are a welcome bonus).

In fact, even as the questions become more and more baffling (how can you lift an entire bookcase on your finger nails), the answers are often straightforward. Chances are you will make your high school science teacher proud. The tone of explanation makes it easy to recount and connect to your old class-notes. Take for example the science behind sticking things together. One might not always realise that adhesives work at a sub-atomic level. Mr Woodford nonetheless makes you recall what you learnt about balloons sticking to walls and paper bits to combs. This becomes an easy entry into understanding the more complex process through which glue works.

It is evident, however, that Mr Woodford is consciously trying to lend a lighter tone to his discourse, often too hard. After the first few chapters his one-liners become repetitive and might seem childish at times, and one can't help think if some of these were taken straight out of the children's science books for which he writes and contributes.

For most readers however the prime takeaway of the book will not be the particular facts or scientific principles. Rather, it will be the old lesson that "science-is-fun" taught us years ago: start asking questions. Read this book to reawaken your curiosity.

First Published: Jul 09 2015 | 9:21 PM IST

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