Len Fisher is an Australian physicist based in England. He’s also a foodie involved in molecular gastronomy. In 2002 he published an essay collection on the UK market, The Science of Everyday Life, which has now been re-issued for US readers.
Before looking at the book’s contents I have to comment on how Fisher’s US publisher, Arcade, has packaged the thing. On the front cover is a nonsensical pseudo-mathematical formula made from clip-art, stating that one’s enjoyment of a doughnut approaches infinity as the amount of coffee and the number of empty cups associated with it decreases. This looks cheap and is stupid, and I’m sure the author had nothing to do with it, even though it is of course possible that he loves doughnuts but hates coffee and china cups.
Then there’s an erroneous sub-title: “An entertaining and enlightening examination of everything we do and everything we see”. The book is indeed quite entertaining and enlightening, but of course the essays make no attempt to cover everything we do and see.
Finally, the back-cover blurb is prominently headed “What is the art and science of a slam dunk?”. A slam dunk is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of basketball shot that is performed when a player jumps in the air and manually powers the ball downward through the basket with one or both hands over the rim”. But basketball is not mentioned in the book. Instead, Fisher’s first essay is entirely about his rigorous, Ignobel Prize-winning experiments with biscuit dunking, the dipping of biscuits into a beverage. The person writing the cover copy clearly has not even paid the most cursory attention to the contents. So boo to you, Arcade Publishing.
With that out of the way, let me say that Len Fisher is a charming and humorous essayist who conveys a fine sense of enthusiasm on his wanderings through the everyday world. Mostly he talks about physics, but there’s also a lot of chemistry and one essay on statistics. All in all there are nine essays, a coda, two appendices and a meaty & talkative endnotes section.
I particularly liked Fisher’s history-of-science sections. But as his editor, I would have stricken out some of the more technical nerd-outs he indulges in, such as when he looks at supermarket prices from the erroneous supposition that the cent amounts are evenly distributed from .00 to .99, when everyone knows that they’re heavily dominated by .99. Still, I didn’t tire of the book, and if I had tired of an individual essay I would still have flipped on to the next.
There are many little gems in these pages, such as the story of a man who made a see-through boomerang, threw it, and then realised to his horror that he couldn’t see the thing coming back and risked having his head bashed in by it. Another fine image is when Fisher calculates the time it would take a weightless astronaut to move from one end of a space station to the other exclusively on the reaction force of an ejaculation. To anyone with a love of science, it’s a fine read. And it doesn’t take a degree either – I haven’t had any formal science training since high school, myself.