Helen Czerski on the fun of physics

University College London physicist Helen Czerski studies the properties of the bubbles that form in the ocean, including their optics, acoustics, and influence on the surrounding atmosphere. BBC viewers will recognize her as the host of several science programs, most recently Colour: The Spectrum of Science and Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics. She also writes the Everyday Science column for Focus Magazine.

In her new book, Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life, Czerski uses quotidian phenomena—a bubble bath, say, or a stain left on a coffee cup—to explore fundamental concepts like gravity and surface tension. According to Physics Today reviewer Brad Halfpap, she succeeds with aplomb. Storm in a Teacup, he writes, “will entertain and educate any person with a healthy curiosity about the natural world.”

Physics Today caught up with Czerski to ask about the inspiration for her book, her work with the BBC, and the best thing about being a physicist.

PT: What inspired you to write Storm in a Teacup, and what were you hoping readers would walk away with at the end?

CZERSKI: I wanted to write it because it was stuff that no one was talking about, and I find it so frustrating. People associate the word physics, especially in the public domain, with quantum mechanics and cosmology. For me physics is all about the messy stuff in the middle, mostly classical physics that actually makes the world work. And no one talks about it. No one talks about the fun of physics and how important the basics are. And I tend to believe that no one should be worrying about the universe until they understand their toaster. Toast has got quite a lot of fundamental physics in it! You’ve got blackbody radiation and electromagnetism in the same thing in your kitchen, and you get toast.

I wanted to share that view of physics. That it isn’t this distant or serious thing where you think philosophical great thoughts about the universe. It’s right here. It is the most democratic thing possible. We all live under the same physical laws. And while it takes a lot of time and effort to really dig into some of the details, the basics are visible to everyone.

The biggest point I hope comes from the book is that the same physical principles that explain why your coffee cup does something also explain how some of the most modern technology we have exists. These are things a citizen needs to know, because if you understand a physical law, it doesn’t just give you a coffee cup. It gives you the telescopes, and the weather, and the big, important things that we need to know about as well.

PT: Why do you think citizens in the modern world need to know more about the physics of everyday life?

CZERSKI: Well, there’s too much to know. We can search for anything with Google, and it’s more than we could ever possibly deal with. In an age when there’s too much to know, people might think, “Why should I trust what a scientist says more than I should trust what anyone else says?” And the reason is that scientists try things again and again. They can say something about how toast falls off a table because they pushed the toast off the table lots of times. They pushed it off with jam on it. They pushed it off with butter on it. They pushed it off upside down. And that very basic scientific approach is there for everyone. It’s not hidden in some physics lab. People can try it themselves. I think that if people see the start of that process, they get more confidence in where all this information comes from.

PT: One of the things that I thought were particularly engaging about Storm in a Teacup was the way you zoom in and out from everyday phenomena to some of the biggest, most exciting ideas in physics. Was it a challenge to link those concepts together?

CZERSKI: No, because the best thing about physics is that physicists are fundamentally really lazy. We learn one principle and then we keep applying it. And the best thing is that once you’ve learned a principle in one place, you then see it in lots of others. Once you learn why popcorn pops—the ideal gas law—you also have the physics that leads to steam engines, rockets, and the weather. That’s my favorite thing about physics: the universality of those rules and the fact that they apply in lots of places. You just get out the same toolbox, and you get richer as you go because the fundamentals of the toolbox are not changing anytime soon. Source: Q&A: Helen Czerski on the fun of physics

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