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Book Notes: Liquid by Mark Miodownik

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Mark Miodownik's book focuses on the liquids around us and is full of fascinating details. It's an easy read for everyone, probably the reason it won the Royal Society Science Book Prize last year.

Mark is a Professor of Materials and Society and UCL and also the Director of their excellent Institute of Making. In the book he describes a journey he took from London to San Francisco and walks the reader through some of the liquids he sees during the flight, their usages, strange properties and how they help us live our lives. I was initially sceptical about this approach but it helps the book “flow” between chapters. Thanks to Jess for buying the book for me for Christmas and for BBC's Inside Science Podcast for introducing me to it. Here are my notes:

  • Perfluorocarbon Liquid (PFC) is a type of oil which is very unreactive so it's possible to dunk your phone in without effect. It is also capable of absorbing oxygen in such high quantities that is is breathable by humans (Liquid Breathing!) and is used for premature babies suffering from respiratory-distress syndrome. Experiments on rats and mice have seen them spend hours at a time submerged and then be able to transition back into air breathing again.

  • I thought Alfred Nobel invented nitro-glycerine but in fact it was his teacher Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero. Sobrero was so frightened by what he had created that he kept it secret for over a year. Nobel turned it into a solid to improve its stability and became stinking rich. (Interesting aside: Nobel is believed to have seen a premature obituary which called him a "merchant of death" which motivated him to create the Nobel Prize in an attempt to untarnish his name).

  • Pickles and wine are astringent foods. In wine the astringency is created by tannins which come from grape skin and break down protein in saliva leaving you with a dry mouth. Astringency counteracts fatty food and clears the palette, why steak and wine work so well together.

  • Tannins are particularly good at bonding to proteins so are often used in leather tanning.

  • A warm liquid allows more of the flavour molecules to evaporate thereby changing how wine smells and tastes. The author states the temperature white and red wine is drunk at makes a big difference to how their taste is perceived, apparently chilled red tastes a lot more like white than you'd think (one to try!)

  • Archimedes worked out a way to tell if something will float: by weighing the amount of water it will displace (wood is less dense than water so will float). Steel sinks but how do steel ships float? I'd always just assumed it was "the air inside" without ever thinking too hard about it. The correction explanation is that making the ship hollow ensures that the average density of the whole vessel is less than water so it will float.

  • Why do waves always seems to approach beaches at a perpendicular angle? Answer: the shallower water, the slower the wave so they are refracted towards the normal just as light is refracted when it enters a glass prism.

  • I thought the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown was caused directly by the 500 km/h tsunami that hit it after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and wiped out everything. It turns out this isn't exactly the case as a generator and some batteries survived and were able to continue operating some of the plant. However, the batteries were unable to be replaced before they ran out of power because of the devastation caused to local infrastructure. As this report states, engineers had to salvage car batteries to power valves and some of the instruments in the control room.

  • One of the reason oil paints look so fantastic is layering, by building up thin layers of semi-transparent oils on top of each other allows light to pass through some and bounce back as coloured light. Resurrection by Titian apparently features 9 layers of oils.

  • The Non-Newtonian fluid that is corn-starch and water is called Oobleck. Can the properties of these fluids be used to make body armour that doesn't suck for the wearer?

  • Water molecules in the air cling to dust particles to form droplets and then clouds. American scientist Vincent Schaefer managed to seed clouds for the first time in 1946 in the Berkshire Mountains. Russia has reportedly been using cloud seeding to get rain to fall prematurely before their annual 1 May celebrations and it was used in the wake of Chernobyl to remove radioactive particles from the air over Belarus before it reached Moscow. Operation Popeye was a cloud seeding mission during the Vietnam War that was designed to extend the monsoon season thereby hindering enemy activity.

  • Dutch scientists are currently working on self-healing roads by embedding steel fibres in the tar. By using a special vehicle which emits an alternating magnetic field they can heat up the steel (and the tarmac around it) using induction, allowing it to flow into any cracks that have appeared before they turn into potholes. A team at Nottingham University are currently testing embedding sunflower oil capsules into tarmac to help it flow, early tests suggest after the capsules are released the tarmac is back at full strength within 2 days.

So many fascinating tidbits here, I'd highly recommend reading the whole book for lots of in depth explanations . Here is a link to it on Amazon and Goodreads.