Monday, 2 May 2011

Book review - Inflight Science


Many of the things that we nowadays take for granted would have once been considered impossible. Television; cars; electricity: it’s easy to imagine the general public of a hundred or a thousand years ago laughing at the notion that modern technology could be anything other than a heretical fantasy. Yet it would also be fair to say that the majority of us know next-to-nothing about how these modern marvels actually work.

Take flying, for example. Ever since Icarus flew too close to the sun and da Vinci doodled in a notebook humanity has dreamt about taking to the heavens, and yet it’s only in the last century that powered flight has become a reality. Now almost anyone can hop on an airplane and within a few hours be on the other side of the planet and think very little of it. But what exactly is going on when we’re up there?

Brian Clegg’s Inflight Science attempts to tackle what is a very complex – and potentially scary – topic and present it in a digestible and informative way. How risky exactly is air travel? How do baggage scanners work? Why does a ‘plane stay up in the air? Why does airline food taste so bad? And why can’t you make a perfect cuppa at 30,000 feet?

This book is an enjoyable scientific romp through the various processes that make up a typical flight, from arriving at the terminal to take-off to the world you can see through the window. The narrative is structured to follow a typical flight, so if you’re in for a long haul it’s perfectly possible to use the text as a real-time guide, a kind of virtual tour of the world of flight as it happens. Who of us really knew, for example, that jet streams are so fast that an aircraft flying within one can easily break the sound barrier? Or that a pressurised cabin affords only 75% of the oxygen one would expect on solid ground?

But Clegg is also keen for the armchair travellers out there to get in on the act, too. To that end a series of topical experiments explore some of the scientific principles of aviation, meaning that to understand flight one doesn’t actually have to take to the skies – a relief for all those suffering from incurable aviatophobia.

Where this book’s strength really lies, however, is in its demonstration that science is all around us and that powered flight is just one of the many ways in which scientific principles form the foundation of the world in which we live. And that’s just another thing to consider when we take to the skies.

Inflight Science is available on Amazon.

1 comment:

Colin Megson said...

Does he give any idea of the radiation dose received on a typical intercontinental flight?

Comments and posts about Fukushima, from the screaming anti-nukes, makes you wonder how much air-time they avoid - none, I suspect.