January 2005

Tom Bernard

nonfiction

How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life by Len Fisher

I read the first chapter of Len Fisher’s How to Dunk a Doughnut the night before I gave blood. When it came time to test the iron level in my blood (which they accomplish by jabbing you in the finger and drawing a small glass tubeful of blood, and which, in my experience, is the worst part of the whole bloodletting process), I made an offhand comment about the wonders of capillary action, something Fisher discusses when explaining the way coffee penetrates the superstructure of a cookie matrix (or, if you prefer, the way water gets from the roots of an oak tree to the leaves hundreds of feet above), and the process by which my blood was making its way up the aforementioned little glass tube.

The Red Cross staffer performing the test looked at me with the kind of joyous recognition that comes of finding a fellow geek in an unexpected place. Turns out she used to talk up the whole concept of capillary action with her donors while running the iron test, but after receiving one too many blank stares in return she gave up on that particular nugget of information. The fact that I spontaneously started talking about something of interest to her, something few of the people she encounters in the course of doing her job know or care about, really seemed to make her day.

In essence, that’s what How to Dunk a Doughnut is all about. It’s a celebration of the science behind everyday occurrences and run of the mill phenomena. Len Fisher explores the ways that the fundamental principles of the universe that science exists to explain or at the very least to push, file, stamp, index, brief, debrief, or number apply to the fundamental details of everyday life.

Consider the essay from which the book takes its title. Aside from explaining the miracle of capillary action and the application of fracture planes to the shipbuilding industry, Fisher’s investigation focuses on the far more critical question of the best way to dunk pastry into a cup of coffee to minimize the chances that the doughnut or cookie (the experiment that underlies this chapter was sponsored by a British cookie maker) will get soggy and collapse into one’s cuppa. This is science we can all get behind, because unlike quantum physics, or stem cell research, this is something we’re all likely to encounter on a semi-regular basis.

As a foodie, the chapter on how to boil an egg was especially interesting, not so much for the discussion of egg boiling (boiling being near the bottom of my list of the best ways to eat an egg) as for the overview of the concept of heat exchange. By the same token, anyone who reads cookbooks that focus on the concept as well as the process of cooking (or, indeed, who watches cooking shows) is already reasonably well versed in the phenomenon of food temperature continuing to rise even after the food (especially roasted meat) is removed from the oven.

This gets to one of the fundamental problems of the book: Fisher is preaching to the choir. While most of us probably don’t consider the cookie dunking question or, in the case of his other food-centric chapter, the gravy absorption rates of the various components of a roast dinner all that consciously, the rest of the concepts and principles he presents are fairly well known to the readers who employ these concepts. People who work with tools may not fully consider the physics of how to swing a hammer, but they know how to drive a nail. Ball players may not consider the multiple forces that act on a ball in flight, but they know how to make a play at the warning track.

There is a definite value to exploring these underlying principles, and Fisher does a fine job of explaining them, provided the reader has a reasonably good head for mathematics. He presents the calculations that underlie the principles he illuminates with details that, if not exhaustive, are certainly comprehensive.

While the concepts in the book are fascinating, in a geeky, information to throw out at a cocktail party sort of way, Fisher’s presentation gets to one of the fundamental problems with science. It’s the same problem that magicians have: once you explain the trick, the wonderful becomes mundane. Things like throwing a boomerang or catching a ball look impressive in practice, but they lose some of their luster when we get down into the detailed nitty-gritty of the numbers, principles and theories behind these phenomena.

This is nowhere so obvious as in the chapter about the physics and mechanics of sex. The details are interesting, but somewhat unnecessary. Sure, it’s interesting to read about the epic odyssey of sperm, but the details kill a lot of the romance of the process. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it (and yes, for all we may shudder to contemplate it, even our parents do it), but the interplay of fluid viscosity and linear propulsion that contributes to the fertilization of an egg, while interesting, isn’t exactly a champagne and Barry White kind of turn on.

In the end, Fisher is less interested in the reader’s libido than he is in advancing his own scientific agenda. He’s making the case that science pure, experimental, unguided, purely inquisitive science for the sake of doing science has real value. In the face of a climate where science funding seems guided by the rush for a big payoff one side (where research is targeted to very specific ends, and often in support of a very specific outcome) and what often seems like willful neglect on the other, Fisher is advocating support for the position “I wonder what would happen if…?”

How To Dunk A Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life by Len Fisher
Penguin Books
ISBN 0143034383
255 Pages