It’s Science!
The Physics of Everyday Things

It’s Science!

James Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota and author of the best-selling The Physics of Superheroes,​​​​​​ provides the scientific basis for many daily devices and interactions.

James Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota and author of the best-selling The Physics of Superheroes,​​​​​​ describes how everything from engines to smartphones to noise-canceling headphones operates according to the principles of physics. Kakalios revels in explaining that physics plays a necessary and constant role in your life. He doesn’t delve too deeply into the actual physics of many of his explanations, yet you will need some scientific knowledge to track his guidance.

Even so, The Wall Street Journal called this “a vivid compendium of digestible science lessons…[that] generate a pleasurable ‘Aha!’ at the connections the author reveals.” Publishers Weekly believes, “Readers will enjoy lucid explanations of dazzling yet quotidian technology…”

One Day

Kakalios presents his information in homey nuggets based on how a single day might proceed. He begins with how the alarm on your smartphone and your coffeemaker run on electricity and magnetic fields that create electromagnetic waves.

One of the most important concepts in physics [is] that of the principle of conservation of energy: ‘Kinetic energy,’ the energy of motion, can only be converted to ‘potential energy’ (the energy associated with a force acting on an object and the distance over which that force can cause motion) and vice versa.James Kakalios

Kakalios explains that a battery propels a tiny motor in your toothbrush handle. When the battery wears down, you plug it into a charger, so the bottom of the toothbrush and top of the charger connect. The alternating current (AC), Kakalios narrates, goes from the wall through a coil in the base of the charger, alternating up and down 60 times per second, creating a constantly changing magnetic field. The base charges the battery through a transformer.

As Kakalios discusses engines, physics moves to the fore. He details how an internal combustion engine creates energy in heat by breaking apart gasoline molecules. Your car’s GPS, he demonstrates, connects to at least four of 32 satellites orbiting the Earth.

At the E-ZPass lane, Kakalios reveals, the device in your car emits and receives radio waves that travel at 186,000 miles [299,338 km] per second. The radio waves convert into electricity, conducting a transaction between your toll payment device and the tollbooth receiver.

Kakalios breaks down how your wireless device uses radio waves to connect to a router. The author moves into more esoteric and interesting ground when he discusses how digital signals – unlike analog waves – contain enormous amounts of data and transmit them with less susceptibility to interference.

Ultrasound imaging, Kakalios shares, travels through air, water and other materials at shifting speeds and reflects differently, depending on the material. A tiny wavelength can detect anomalies and regions of varying density in the body, creating an image.

Your debit card, he continues, contains a coil. The ATM reader generates a changing magnetic field that creates a current in the card, energizing a chip that signals the reader.

Once more offering fascinating minutiae, the author conveys that touch screens are made up of hundreds of small squares. A resistive touch screen has two layers: You push the first layer into the second, causing a current to flow that signals which square or squares you touched. 

Alternative touchscreens, Kakalios shares, have hundreds of squares on one layer with a capacitor behind each one that stores electrical charges. Your touch triggers the capacitors and changes their voltage. This is why, Kakalios shows, many touchscreens won’t work if you wear gloves.

The principle of conservation of energy governs all aspects of our lives. Nearly as important have been the basics of electromagnetism, where electrical currents create magnetic fields, and changing magnetic fields induce electrical currents.James Kakalios

Airport body scanners use microwaves – thousands of times weaker than those in a microwave oven – with a wavelength of about one millimeter. This is large, the author teaches, compared to the fibers in your clothing. A hidden object will appear in a darker shade.

Kakalios cites Newton’s law regarding aircraft flight: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As a plane picks up speed for take-off, the shape of its wings causes more molecules to run along the bottom of the wing than over the top; this difference in density creates buoyancy and lift.

Kakalios breaks down how photodiodes populate each pixel of your camera, and with light, they spark electricity, exciting silicon. The process captures light precisely, matching colors based on the wavelength of the light.

Throughout your day, you’ve relied on physics – very old and very new.James Kakalios 

The author offers compelling information about noise-canceling headphones, which convert incoming sound waves into electrical voltages, then back into sound waves. These waves interfere with incoming ambient sound waves, canceling them to some degree.

Folksy Science

Kakalios assumes the reader understands the scientific vernacular, concepts and theories he refers to throughout, so you’d better brush up on your physics. And while his day-in-the-life narrative grows somewhat tedious, his folksy approach should appeal to those with a basic grounding in science. As usual with any seemingly esoteric field, some quotidian explanations are sadly exactly that. Kakalios isn’t the most exciting writer, and his gee-whiz presentations of painfully obvious scientific concepts may trigger a purely human action: You might put the book down. However, Kakalios loves physics, electricity, Newton and science in general. He communicates his passion implicitly and explicitly. Curious younger readers inclined toward science will find much to learn and enjoy here.

If you like learning how physics manifests in your daily world, you’ll also enjoy Kakalios’s The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics; Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup; and Chad Orzel’s How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog.

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