What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions - Robert L. Wolke (2000)


I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, “Did Einstein even have a barber?”

You've seen his pictures, right? And it's perfectly clear that the great man devoted a lot more time to cultivating the inside of his head than the outside.

But this book isn't about barbers, and it isn't even much about Einstein. (His name comes up only four times.) It is a book of scientific small talk, the kinds of things that Einstein might have talked about with his barber—simple things that may have been trivial to the great scientist, but that the rest of us may wonder about.

There are many science-is-fun books for young readers. But it isn't only children who wonder “Why?” or “How?” Curiosity doesn't end at puberty, nor does the genuine fun of understanding why things happen. And yet, once we are “done with science” in school we encounter few books for people of any age who are simply curious about their everyday surroundings and derive pleasure from knowing what makes them tick. This is that kind of book.

Maybe you are convinced that science is “not for you,” that it is inherently difficult stuff, and that if you were to ask a question the answer would be too technical and complicated for you to understand. So you just don't ask. You may have come to these conclusions because of unfortunate experiences with school science classes or simply from the science stories in newspapers and magazines and on television. These stories are by their very nature guaranteed to be technical and complicated, because they are about the latest discoveries of leading scientists. If they weren't, they wouldn't be news. You won't see a TV special on why the bathroom floor feels so cold on your bare feet. But the explanation of that phenomenon is science, every bit as much as a discussion of quarks or neutron stars.

Science is everything you see, hear and feel, and you don't have to be an Einstein or even a scientist to wonder why you are seeing, hearing and feeling those things, because in most cases the explanations are surprisingly simple and even fun.

This is not a book of facts. You will not find answers here to questions such as “Who discovered …?” “What is the biggest …?” “How many …are there?” or “What is a …?” Those aren't the kinds of things that real people wonder about. Collections of answers to such contrived questions may help you win a trivia contest, but they are not satisfying; they don't contribute to the joy of understanding. The joy and the fun come not from mere statements of fact but from explanations— explanations in plain, everyday language that make you say, “Wow! Is that all there is to it?”

There are well over a hundred explicit questions addressed in this book, but that by no means limits the number of things that are actually explained. The physical world is a complex web of goings-on, and nothing happens for a single, facile reason. In science, every answer uncovers new questions, and no explanation can ever be complete.

Nevertheless, I have written each question-answer unit to be self-contained, to be read and understood independently of all the others. This must inevitably lead to some overlap—an essential link in logic cannot be omitted simply because it is treated in greater detail elsewhere. But as every teacher knows, a bit of repetition never hurt the learning process.

Whenever another Q&A unit contains closely related information, you will be referred to the page number on which that unit appears. Thus, there is no need to read the book sequentially. Read any unit that catches your eye at any time. But don't be surprised if you are lured into a web of related units by the page references. Follow the lark. That way, you'll be following trains of thought sequentially, as if they had been laid out in a (heaven forbid) textbook, which neither of us wants. You've been there, and I've done that. And whenever a complete explanation requires a little more detail than you may be in the mood for, that detail is banished to a Nitpicker's Corner. There, you may either continue reading or just skip it and move on to another question. Your call.

I have studiously avoided using scientific terms. I believe that any concept that is capable of being understood should be explainable in ordinary language; that's what language was invented for. But for their own convenience, scientists use linguistic shortcuts that I call “Techspeak.” When a Techspeak word is inescapable, or when it is a word that you may have heard and avoiding it might seem contrived, I define it in plain language on the spot. You will find the definitions of some useful Techspeak words in the back of the book.

I assume no previous scientific knowledge on your part. There are three ubiquitous Techspeak words, however, that I use without taking the trouble to define each time: atom, molecule and electron. If you're a bit skittish about your familiarity with them, check them out in the Techspeak list before you begin.

Scattered throughout the book you will find a number of Try Its—fun things that you can do in your own home to illustrate the principles being explained. You will also find a number of Bar Bets that may or may not win you a round of drinks, but that will certainly get a spirited discussion going.

When Albert Einstein was in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, an eager young newspaper reporter approached him one day, notebook in hand. “Well, Professor Einstein,” he asked, “what's new in science?”

Einstein looked at him with his deep, soft eyes and replied, “Oh? Have you already written about all the old science?”

What he meant was that science isn't to be characterized only by the latest headline-making discovery. Scientific observation has been going on for centuries, and in that time we have learned a tremendous amount about the world around us. There is a vast heritage of knowledge that explains ordinary, familiar happenings.

That's the “old science.” Everyday science. That's what this book is about.