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Physics book ideal for the beach -- if you can find one

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Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the  fastest human on the planet, but a dragonfly would leave him in the dust.

MATT DUNHAM / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest human on the planet, but a dragonfly would leave him in the dust.

If ever there were a physics book to read at the beach, this is it.

But first, you'd have to find a beach on the shores of lakes Manitoba or Winnipeg that isn't under water. The problem isn't just the unusually high rainfall; it's also about the very slow rise of the land to the north that is causing higher water levels in the south end of the lakes.

Fargo, N.D., has finished rebounding from the compression of the land from the massive glaciers in the last Ice Age, but there was a lot more ice up north, and Churchill continues to rise at a rate of 1.3 centimetres (a half-inch) per year.

Eventually, Lake Manitoba will be draining into the Portage diversion and the Red River will flow south to Fargo.

The tilting of Manitoba's landscape is happening so slowly we hardly notice it. As science writer Bob Berman points out in his latest book Zoom: How Everything Moves, From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees, we are far more likely to pay attention to large, fast-moving objects -- bears running at 50 kilometres per hour, or a shooting star at 3,800 kilometres per hour. We largely ignore large, slow-moving events (isostatic rebound around Hudson Bay, or the growth of a mature elm) as well as fast-moving objects we can't easily see (bacteria travelling at 15 centimetres per hour, or photons travelling at the speed of light). Nonetheless, everything is in motion.

Nothing in the universe is completely still -- nothing. Even out in "empty" space, where the temperature is close to absolute zero -- the temperature where all motion ceases -- atoms still have enough energy to vibrate. In fact, a condition where all motion ceases doesn't exist anywhere in the known universe. Everything in our world is moving -- it's just a question of how fast or how slowly.

Berman has written several popular science books and is also the science editor for the Old Farmer's Almanac. He takes a light, breezy -- and occasionally glib -- approach to describing the ceaseless movement of our bodies, our local environment and the universe. Fans of the cosmos who read Berman's Strange Universe column in Astronomy Magazine will be familiar with many of the anecdotes liberally (too liberally) sprinkled throughout this book.

He takes, for instance, an unnecessarily circuitous route to explain the Beaufort scale used to classify wind speed, throwing in Admiral Robert FitzRoy (the captain of MHS Beagle) as well as Charles Darwin and Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, finishing up with a quotation from Mark Twain. Berman bubbles over with neat little anecdotes and factoids and, like author Simon Winchester, seems unwilling to leave them aside, no matter how tangential they are to the point he's trying to make.

The first two chapters of Zoom are all over the place, and peppered with too-clever-by-half popular cultural references. But after that, Berman calms down and spends enough time in each chapter to address specific themes.

Berman is an engaging writer, and Zoom is an entertaining read. Readers learn that a reasonably fit person can outrun a mosquito, but not a dragonfly. At 60 km/h, a dragonfly leaves the fastest human on the planet (Usain Bolt, at 37 km/h) in the dust. And if it seemed as if spring was never going to arrive this year, it was, in fact, marching north at a rate of 160 kilometres per week, which Berman calculates is about the same speed as a parent pushing a stroller.

The rates of motion in this book are given only in Imperial measurements, no doubt for the benefit of Berman's American readers. It would have been helpful to include metric conversions for the rest of the world, at the very least in the table of motions in the appendix.

Berman deserves kudos for his chapters on gravity and quantum physics. Both are very complex topics fraught with enigmas and counter-intuitive notions, but his explanations are just fine for the average reader.

Those looking for that rarest of things, a physics book suitable for summer reading at the beach, will be pleased.

 

Sheilla Jones is a Winnipeg writer who reads physics books at the beach. She is the author of The Quantum Ten and co-author of Bankrupting Physics.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 G5

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Updated on Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 8:12 AM CDT: Formatting.

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