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Saturday, May 10th, 2008
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Physics for Entertainment

by Yakov Perelman

Fun Physics for Literary People

A review by Doug Brown

Perelman was a Russian author who wrote a classic two-volume set of books called Physics for Entertainment in the 1930s, introducing physics concepts to the chelovek on the street. As volume one of the set was unavailable, this translation is only of volume two. However, the volumes were clearly meant to stand alone; there is no disorienting impression of coming in midway through the semester. The title of this book may sound like an oxymoron to many readers, but it really is a fun volume filled with everyday simple experiments and observations.

A common theme through the book could be called physics for literature majors, as Perelman provides many lengthy excerpts from literature and discusses the physical concepts therein. Of course science fiction is emphasized, with several Jules Verne and H. G. Wells examples. Perelman demonstrates that Wells's explanation of The Invisible Man wouldn't have worked, because if he were truly transparent then he wouldn't have been able to see. In this regard, Physics for Entertainment is the first example of a now popular genre: the nitpicker's guide, where popular science fiction films and television shows are analyzed by physicists. However, more than just science fiction is covered; we get bits of Pliny, Mark Twain, Pushkin, and others. Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Sphinx" is included with only a few small edits, as it aptly demonstrates an optical illusion regarding perspective.

The most remarkable thing to me is this book was written long before anyone had been in space. Most of Perelman's explanations of how things would behave in zero-G have turned out to be right. The only incorrect guess I spotted was he thought that water boiled in space would form a homogenous foam; surprisingly, a space station experiment showed that surface tension causes one large air bubble to form in the middle of the water bubble. I think we can forgive Perelman not having anticipated that result, as nobody else did. And conversely, despite having been written for a 1930s Russian audience, Physics for Entertainment isn't all that dated. Occasionally there will be experiments that call for everyday objects that aren't so everyday anymore, but not all that often.

While there are a few equations here and there, they aren't required for comprehension (I skipped them myself). The book is arranged in chapters with stand alone subsections that are each only a page or two long, which makes for convenient dipping in and out. A sampling of these subsection headings, to give a taste: "Why do knots hold?", "How an icebreaker works," "Why winds make us feel the cold more," "Why does water put out fire?", "Illusions useful for tailors," and "If the speed of sound were less." Rather than explaining arcane results like slit-screen experiments, Perelman focuses on things you've all seen, and explains why things behave the way they do. The font is clearly a reproduction of the original (so it has that "classic reprint" feel), and the illustrations are also from the original text. For anyone who has read the review of a physics book this far, I think you'll have fun with this one. Physics for Entertainment, indeed.


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