A Banqueting Table For The Inquiring Mind

Review Of How To Dunk A Doughnut: The Science Of Everyday Life, By Len Fisher, Orion Books, London

ISBN: 0 75381 705 5

How To Dunk A Doughnut is the title of a popular science tome by British physicist Len Fisher who, in 2002, sought to spice up topics that would by in large fall outside the realms of a serious scientific mulling over. Despite drawing sharp criticism and jabs of mockery from some who have taken exception to his seeming trivialization of the scientific enterprise, Fisher maintains that the beauty of science lives as much in the “intimacy of every day, familiar detail” as it does in the unstoppable march of academic progress. And a quick perusal through the chapters of his book shows just how hard he has worked to prove his point.

Baffled by the idea that doughnut dunkers could possibly benefit from some yet un-disseminated scientific pearls of wisdom, I sat down doughnut in hand to put Fisher’s book through its paces. And there was a lot that I learned about this ring-shaped ‘gluten net’ that today forms a staple ingredient of English tea time reunions.  Fisher introduces the reader to the principles of capillary action, surface tension and viscosity, skillfully intertwining scientific facts with the history of discovery. His capacity to draw from apparently incommensurate examples of physical phenomena (eg: crack formation in the SS Schenectady and the splitting of a wafer-thin cookie) lays bare a deep understanding of the themes that he presents.

Story-telling adds an element of excitement to any scientific exposition. And when it comes to popular science writing, Fisher is a master of his trade. His retellings of the famed reconstruction of Archimedes’ ship-lifting lever, the use of wheel barrows in the building of Gothic cathedrals, ball catching in a 1930s English village cricket match, the painting of Aboriginal motifs on boomerangs and the numerous world-class culinary science events that he has attended, all give brio to what would otherwise be a colorless overview of scientific equations and hypotheses. Concepts such as momentum, heat convection and conduction and Galileo’s principle, which the non-expert reader may not be completely familiar with, are vividly described.  And the mathematically-minded will no doubt find much to sink their teeth into with scintillating calculations using the square rule of heat transfer, the radius of a boomerang flight circle and the torque needed to break a half inch bolt. 

For the self-made home improvement buff, the Tao Of Tools chapter is a veritable gem-piece of tool learning. Fisher’s journey through a menagerie of common tools leaves budding DIY-ists such as me wondering how they ever aspired to become anything more than amateurish dabblers in the essential duties of home ownership. The claw hammer remains my all-time favorite. The fulcrum of the claw can be placed close to any well-secured nail, supplying the user with a huge mechanical advantage (and a gratifying feeling of power as the nail is cleanly drawn out of its hole). The screwdriver, which Fisher classifies as little more than “a rigid extension to the operator’s arm” likewise increases the mechanical advantage when aligned with a screw. The hammer is of course more commonly used in a percussive manner for driving nails into wood.

Fisher ends his literary tour de force with a high level review of the physics of sex, capitalizing of course on the power of this delightful topic to hold an audience captive. Details on hydrostatic pressure, sperm swim rate and the stretch ‘quality’ of cervical mucus give the reader a rather novel perspective on the race towards fertilization.  And it turns out that the tendency of cervical mucus to form protein-rich cusps at its interface with other liquids is indispensably important if a spermatozoon is to overcome the 60 Pa yield stress of the mucosal barrier that stands in its way. The prowess of the humble sperm, as it crosses the length of the cervical canal in 10-15 minutes, is enough to put even the fastest human swimmer to shame.  Having made it through a multifarious collection of  physical hurdles, the winning spermatozoon is duly rewarded: “like a knight of old, scaling the defended ramparts and eventually breaking through to the maiden within”.  

If there is a low point in How To Dunk A Doughnut it is unquestionably Fisher’s application of statistics to the mundane task of adding up a supermarket bill. Rounding up numbers is fairly intuitive to most. And frequency distribution tables on pricing show few surprises. Most seasoned shoppers (I am at the ‘infrequent’ end of that particular distribution profile) are aware of the psychologically-motivated practice of putting 99 after the decimal on a price tag. Not much to grip the reader’s interest there. But Fisher quickly regains credibility in later chapters that deal with boomerang throwing, ball catching and gravy absorption in mashed potatoes. His easy-to-read roundup of the common molecular forces that characterize everything from detergents to DNA once again demonstrates a talent for explaining the complicated in simple language.  Altogether How To Dunk A Doughnut provides a most stimulating read that science enthusiasts from all walks of life will find to be a valuable addition to their personal libraries. It is without a doubt a veritable banqueting table for the inquiring mind.

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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One thoughtful comment

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