Len Fisher, The Science of Everyday Life


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.


5 thoughts on “Len Fisher, The Science of Everyday Life

  1. Reaction mass/ ejaculation? I think John Varley mentioned that in his novel “Titan”.
    Yes, that was long ago. I really am that old.
    Another tongue-in-cheek popular science book to be recommended is “The Further Inventions of Daedalus” by David E. H. Jones .
    In between the crazy schemes that look like something thought up by Homer Simpson, there are actually ideas that independently were invented by serious scientists and have stood up to scrutiny… like the space elevator. Or the explodoboots.


  2. Just FYI, slam dunk, by metaphorical extensions, also means any easy shot, short cut, or sure thing. Did the book have some straightforward advice on just how long, deep, carefully to dunk one’s doughnut in coffee? That may have been a very weak pun. I’m not making excuses for what seems to have been rather mediocre job, but figured you might not have been familiar with the idiom. (I find this kind of thing fascinating. I once read a neat article in Le Monde trying to explain English baseball metaphors to the French reading public. It’s easy to forget where these phrasings come from when you’ve grown up with them.)


  3. “I particularly liked Fisher’s history-of-science sections” That is hard to get right, since authors do not know the level of previous knowledge of the readers. If the reader does not see the implications of a particular discovery, he/she might lose interest.

    (OT) The beavers are coming!!! http://www.thelocal.se/34064/20110530/


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