“A series of glasses with transparent liquids is in front of you, but which will quench your thirst and which will kill you?” Thus asks the dust jacket of Liquid of the reader. In this imagined game of liquid Russian roulette, one glass will get you drunk (vodka), the other kills you (kerosene), while a third will bring you no harm (water). But why? In Liquid, materials scientist Mark Miodownik takes an amusing romp through the chemistry and physics of the liquids of our everyday life.
Narrated as one man’s thoughts and reflections during a transatlantic flight from London to San Francisco, Miodownik dwells on a range of interesting properties of liquids. The book opens with a canned history of liquid fuels, from wax, olive oil, and whale blubber, to modern hydrocarbon fuels such as kerosene. A related class of molecules, on the other hand, will get you drunk (see more in my next review of The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse Alcohol). Wine (see also A Natural History of Wine and The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass) is steeped in mythology, some of it grounded in reality (the temperature at which you serve it), while other parts are delusional (the discerning abilities of wine tasting experts).
How do glues work? Why can Post-It notes be reused, while superglue binds things almost irreversibly? (And, wait, we glue aeroplanes together??). The magic worked by liquid crystal displays (better known as LCDs), the grossness of bodily fluids (except when we’re kissing), or a very British jaunt into the particulars of what makes the perfect cup of tea, Miodownik touches on all sorts of topics. Liquids allow us to clean ourselves, refrigerate food, and write. Especially the history of László Biró’s pen, the biro or ballpoint pen, is very interesting (see also Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write).
But liquids and liquid-like properties also play a role on a planetary scale, in fields such as meteorology (cloud formation), oceanography (waves and tsunamis), or structural geology and plate tectonics (earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building). While Miodownik talks of the delights of catching the perfect wave when surfing (see also The Wave: In Pursuit of the Oceans’ Greatest Furies), other topics such as rogue waves (see Rogue Waves: Anatomy of a Monster), tides (see Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth), or ocean currents (see The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change) are not mentioned.
“Why can Post-It notes be reused, while superglue binds things almost irreversibly? (And, wait, we glue aeroplanes together??)”
The thing is, there are many stories that could be told here, but Liquid is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment. Miodownik instead uses his narrative structure to focus on the liquids we encounter in our daily lives and spins off his tales from there. Little hand-scribbled drawings highlight how the different properties are a function of the molecular structure of a liquid. There is also a selection of black-and-white photos, although their reproduction and size sometimes had me look twice to figure out what I was seeing.
And then there is Susan, a fellow passenger who has to suffer Miodownik’s zaniness and social awkwardness. This element might feel slightly forced, although some of the situations he recounts are embarrassingly familiar (falling asleep on a fellow passenger?). As he later reveals, it’s a shame they never got talking during the flight.
All in all, Liquid is popular science of a high level, avoiding factoid lists and the hysterical “OMG, did you know?!!” tone. Instead, Miodownik knows how to spin a fine yarn and his writing is amusing without being silly, informative without being patronising. He proves himself the teacher we all would have wished for in our high school chemistry and physics classes.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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