After Hours

Weekend Reading—What Einstein Told His Barber

The question of whether or not the wild-haired scientist ever saw a barber in his life is just the tip of the iceberg in Robert L. Wolke's book. If you love to know off-the-wall bits of scientific info, we've got the book for you!


By Robert Jason Smith

You'vebeenstaringatyourmonitortoolong.RelaxandcurlupwithabookunrelatedtoIT,endusers,ornetworks.WeekendReadinghasyourreview.


By Robert L. Wolke
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000
320 pages, softcover
ISBN: 0440508797
Price: $9.55 at Fatbrain.com
“Did Einstein even have a barber?” Answers to that—and other unusual questions—are the basis of Robert L. Wolke’s What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions. However, if you are looking for information on Albert Einstein, the ingenious 20th century scientist who was named “man of the century,” you won’t find it here. In fact, Wolke mentions in the introduction that the name Einstein is used only four times throughout the book.

Every computer geek I have ever run into has this uncanny ability to spout off interesting facts about off-the-wall subjects. Where do you suppose they get all this good trivia? In books like this one.

So, what is this book? Perhaps the subtitle will give us some clue: “More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions.” Ah, there it is. This book is simply written in a question-and-answer style. Simply, however, is probably not the best term to use; most of the explanations are thorough and—yep, you guessed it—scientific. Wolke does do an excellent job in breaking down scientific explanations into terms everyone can understand, however, despite the fact that he’s a physicist as well as a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

Questions that keep you awake at night, wondering
Would you still be able to hear your radio if you drove faster than the speed of sound? Wolke tells us that yes, indeed, you would be able to hear the radio. He explains that you, the radio, and the air between you and the radio (not to mention your very scared passengers) aren’t moving relative to one another. Therefore, you would be able to hear the radio, as well as the bloodcurdling screams of your petrified passengers.

If absolute zero is the lowest possible temperature, is there a highest possible temperature? The author explains, in a section labeled “Hot, Hotter, Hottest” (one where Albert Einstein’s name is actually mentioned), that what we call temperature is actually a measure of how fast particles are moving. Well, just like we do while driving, particles have a speed limit. Whether or not we choose to obey the speed laws, particles are doomed to obey the laws of nature. So just what IS the hottest possible temperature? 140,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 degrees—Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick. Does it really matter?

Have you ever tried to stand an egg on its end during a vernal equinox? Did it work? It should have. Actually, Wolke tells us that you can also perform this amazing feat every Tuesday in February, as well as anytime during the fourth game of the World Series. Sound a little suspicious? It is. You can, apparently, balance an egg on its end any day of the year, with no help from an equinox—just a steady hand. Every egg has little bumps on it (hope the chickens don’t mind that) that allow it to balance on a non-glassy surface (that would just be too difficult). It’s amazing what a little superstition can make you believe.

Nitpicking
Throughout the book, Wolke also provides us with a “Nitpicker’s Corner”—a kind of “let me set you straight” section after answering some of the questions. For example, after having explained what a “dew point” is, he goes on to say that the term “moisture” is not a term that should be used to describe water vapor. Rather, “moist” means slightly wet or damp, and moisture is the liquid water that makes the object moist. Hey, he doesn’t call it a “Nitpicker’s Corner” for nothing.

The author proposes several experiments that you can try out in order to aid in your understanding. They are listed under “Try It” captions throughout the book. Wolke will have you doing everything from pressing objects against your forehead (for a lesson on heat energy) to chewing WintOGreen Life Savers while in the closet (to help you understand triboluminescence, of course). You know, it’s amazing what you will do at the suggestion of a physicist.

Whatever questions keep you up at night, Robert L. Wolke has an explanation. Besides this book, he is also the author of What Einstein Didn’t Know: Specific Answers to Everyday Questions, the first in this series of question-and-answer books that will feed that absorbing sponge you call a brain.

The recommendation
This book is just what we, the computer geeks of the world, need: more fuel for conversations. Some of us live to be able to correct our know-it-all friends and colleagues whenever we can. But be warned: after reading this book—you just might turn into a real know-it-all yourself. Wouldn’t that be great?

Robert Jason Smith is a computer information systems student by day and an Internet production assistant at an online newspaper by night. He actually enjoys spending long hours in front of his computer designing Web pages—go figure!

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