Physicist Helen Czerski Reveals the Extraordinary Science Behind Everyday Life

“Why does milk, when added to tea, look like billowing storm clouds?”

This is the question behind the title of physicist Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. Her fascinating explorations into ordinary occurrences are the perfect introduction to physics for the lay-reader. Her brief and engaging stories help link concepts like refraction, reflection, gravity, and thermodynamics with moments in your daily life. If you’ve ever wondered how your cell phone works or why your toast always seems to fall butter-side down, this is the book for you.

Czerski takes difficult scientific material and presents it in bite-sized chunks through fast-paced storytelling. But in the first chapter, her style can come across as chaotic. She jumps from one idea to another before you’re finished thinking about the last one. You might feel lost at first, doubt yourself, or wonder if you’re not smart enough to grasp her ideas. Then suddenly, it all comes together. The stories connect to a physics concept so eloquently that you just get it. Now you’re delighted while you read, and every story she presents seems to draw you in deeper and deeper until all you can think about is how the world around you works.

The rest of the book reads more smoothly once you’ve adjusted to her pace and writing style. It’s not that she isn’t a talented writer – Czerski writes “Everyday Science” for BBC Focus magazine, and is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. But her pace can whisk you off your feet. If you take the time to watch her TED Talk, The fascinating physics of everyday life, you’ll understand that feeling.

Once you get your feet back under you, you’re in for a whirlwind adventure through science. Czerski’s high-energy attitude and wit give way to fascinating explanations about how your toaster works, why toast always seems to land butter-side down, and why duck’s feet never seem to get cold (turns out that they’re already cold). She’ll walk you through her memories and show you the science behind a small detail captured within them. Her vivid imagery, warm narration, and charming wit keeps her readers thoroughly entertained. Following along with her is like having a really, really good dinner conversation.

It feels like you can open up Storm in a Teacup to any page, read a paragraph or two aloud, and surprise everyone in the room with a cool physics concept they will all understand. And that’s exactly what Czerski aims to bring you; something you can share the coolness of with other people. Throughout the book, she throws in plenty of experiments you can try for yourself or show your friends and family. One of her most famous examples is spinning eggs, which you can see a demonstration of in her TED talk above. Her ability to use an everyday occurrence to help others understand physics makes science friendly and engaging to all audiences. While the experts can nod along, smiling, she’ll have non-scientists thrilled like fans of Mythbusters and How It’s Made. If you watch those kinds of shows, then you’ll probably like this book.

My own opportunity to apply what I learned from Storm in a Teacup came while I was at my job. I work as a medication technician at an assisted living home, where I have to monitor residents’ blood sugar levels and administer insulin shots and medications. Recently, one of my residents watched me poke his finger to check his blood sugar. When I read off his number on the screen, he surprised me by asking how the device could possibly know that. I immediately thought of a passage I had read in Czerski’s book just the night before:

Today, people with diabetes can monitor their blood sugar using a simple electronic device and a test strip. A tiny drop of blood touched to the test strip will immediately whoosh into the absorbent material due to capillary action. Tucked away in the tiny pores of the strip is an enzyme, glucose oxidase, and when this reacts with blood sugar it produces an electric signal. The hand-held device measures that signal, and viola! – an accurate measure of blood sugar appears on the screen.

After I explained this process to him, the seventy-one-year-old man raised his eyebrows and remarked that he had no idea how “smart the damn thing” was. I laughed. He told me he’d always wondered how it worked, but never thought to ask because he didn’t think I would know the answer. I did, thanks to Helen Czerski.

This is the wonderful thing about reading Czerski’s book. She’s giving you answers to questions you’ve thought about but never voiced. You might struggle now and then to understand a certain concept (physics never fails to blow my mind), but you will have that inevitable moment when something absolutely relates to what you do. And when you get to share that knowledge with someone else, it makes that satisfaction even better. The point is to provide explanations that everyone – your mom, your grandma, or your little brother – will understand.

Czerski ends her book by connecting fundamental physics to three essential systems – the human body, civilization, and the earth. These three short sections serve as an epilogue, leaving the reader with an understanding that knowledge of physics is not only relevant, but necessary. An understanding of its fundamental laws will benefit anyone and everyone. She is not only advocating for the importance of her field and her career, she is empowering non-scientists to have a better understanding of their world. She’s doing what every science communicator strives for: bringing science to the general public and engaging them with interesting concepts relevant to their ordinary lives.

That’s why her book is such a joy to read. It’s physics for everyone.

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer, book reviewer, and cat enthusiast.

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