when a cup of tea is not just a cup of tea
Unless you're a scientist you spend your life accepting that the world works in familiar predictable ways, without really understanding why things work as they do. Storm in a Teacup is a wonderful example of popular science for people like me without the language of maths.
What is wonderful about this book is how Czerski explains physical processes in relation to ordinary things, like why the water moves in spirals when you stir milk into your cup of tea. Then she shows how these same patterns occur in other contexts too, from our kitchens to the outer reaches of the universe. Just like the tea, above the Earth cold and warm air swirl around each other before they mix together, and this is what causes rapid changes in the weather.
One of the fascinating things about learning to be a gardener is the awareness that everything is continually changing. Change happen continually in the atmosphere, in living things, in the oceans, in ice, even in the rocks beneath our feet that form the core of the planet. They are never still because heat energy causes molecules to move, and then there is a push to get back to a new equilibrium, and so the cycle goes on. There is a law of physics about how matter always seeks equilibrium, but the law doesn't say anything about the speed and time taken to reach it. This depends on other factors like the density of the material and the force of gravity.
Here's Czerski's explanation about the power of plants. A huge amount of light energy from the Sun strikes our planet. Nearly everywhere on Earth green plants grow, whether it's a sliver of moss or a lush rainforest. Each leaf is seen as a tiny factory turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar and the oxygen that enables all life on earth. The sugar is stored as energy for the future needs of the plant. It will be used to build branches, leaves, fruit and seeds until only the seed is left, "a package of genetic information designed to restart the cycle with new energy from the Sun's fountain of light."
A recent exhibition at Scienceworks explored the branching patterns and shapes found everywhere in nature. "The rule of bifurcation is found in plants (root systems, branches, leaf veins) but also in the human body (neurons, blood vessels, arteries), and in the greater environment (river systems, canyons, lighting)... Mathematicians call this kind of repeating a fractal, found not only in nature and mathematics, but also in coding and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in film." Children were invited to make mini models of these patterns and help grow an incredible hanging garden.
The universe is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Trying to understand the big picture - how physical patterns fit together - gives us another way of understanding and linking what Czerski calls our three life-support systems: the human body, our planet and our civilization. Technology comes out of understanding these patterns, and then working out how to replicate and control them.
Whew! Thinking about this is doing my head in. I think I'll make myself a cup of tea, and try not to think about the behaviour of the water molecules for a bit.