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Book Review

The Handy Physics Answer Book, Second Edition

How is surfing a lot like downhill skiing? After all, surfing is a sport practiced in the water and only where it is warm, and downhill skiing is done on the snow—not to mention on hills. The main similarity is that in both sports an athlete skis down a hill. In skiing, the hill is a permanent fixture, but a surfer moves down a hill of water that is constantly rising underneath her or him—without actually moving downward.

In this book, Zitzewitz explains complicated scientific concepts in plain English that non-scientists can understand. The second edition has been updated to tackle big issues such as gravity, magnetism, sound, and what happens in the Large Hadron Collider. The book examines more than 700 basic questions about physics and physicists, ranging from everyday applications to the latest explorations in subatomic physics.

The questions the authors answers include: Why do tires have treads? How does a curve ball curve? What is a sonic boom? What is quantum physics? What is string theory? And What do physicists believe will eventually happen to the universe.

One characteristic of this book that detracts from its overall appeal is that many of the questions it poses are questions that are not likely to occur to the general reader. For example, at one point Zitzewitz asks, “What is the modern conception of light?” While that is a question worth pondering, it isn’t one the layman is likely to ask. Most readers would probably prefer a more basic question, a more childlike question, if you will—“What is light? What makes the brightness that comes to us from the sun and that comes out of the end of a flashlight when we turn it on?”

When the author asks, “Why do soap bubbles and gasoline spills create different color reflections?” he is closer to the questions all of us non-physicists are likely to wonder about.

This is one of those books that would be a welcome addition to the reading material in any office with a waiting room. Its entries are short and can be read in any order.