Storm in a Teacup
Science communication’s star has risen over recent years – witness the popularity of the Facebook page “I fucking love science”, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s high-profile stoush with rapper B.o.B over the question of the Earth’s shape, or the role that popular science plays in so-called “new atheist” discourse. Then there are more serious attempts to communicate the complexities of research to laypeople, including the excellent publications Nautilus, Cosmos, and Australian newcomer Lateral. British-based physicist Helen Czerski’s debut book, Storm in a Teacup, may be pitched a touch more populist than the contents of these specialist magazines, but it shares with them the serious mission of communicating not merely facts but, more broadly, an appreciation of the scientific method.
Czerski’s experience in television – she regularly presents physics programs for the BBC – translates with ease to the written word, where she retains the role of an engaging host. Her mode is not the “Well, actually…” of some well-known science communicators, who seem to relish the opportunity to correct the misconceptions of rubes, but rather that of a co-conspirator: she invites you to join her on small journeys of discovery, each centred around everyday objects or experiences. Thus Czerski explains the basic mechanisms of light and soundwaves by referring to seabirds sitting on the surface of the ocean, or surface tension by observing how tea towels clean up spilled milk, or the interplay between buoyancy and gravity by dropping a handful of raisins into a bottle of fizzy lemonade.
It’s hard not to be swept along by her enthusiasm for the subject matter, even if she is covering the ground of high-school classes – few readers will have been blessed with educators whose love of science is as infectious as Czerski’s. It therefore feels somewhat churlish to note that she doesn’t engage in any sort of philosophical or historiographical critique of the scientific method: there’s no trace of Paul Feyerabend, Bruno Latour or Thomas Kuhn here. Like many other science communicators, Czerski takes historical progress as axiomatic, and the last chapter in particular displays a kind of anodyne whig historiography that reassures the reader that humanity is up to the challenge posed by global warming. But Storm in a Teacup is stronger when it focuses on minutiae rather than the big picture – here, in the details, is where Czerski shines. SZ
Bantam, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "Helen Czerski, Storm in a Teacup". Subscribe here.