Bursting the bubble

Science - Len Fisher reveals what scientists really get up to in the bath

I recently walked into my village post office carrying a copy of New Scientist. The postmaster took one look at the magazine and burst out "New Scientist! Making atom bombs in your bathroom, har, har!" His reaction emphasised the extent to which scientists, like hangmen, are socially disadvantaged by their trade.

Like other scientists, I am driven by wanting to understand how things work. It is a drive that most people share, whether the "things" are personal relationships, business manoeuvring, politics or the insides of cars. All of these people can explain their interests to those who do not share them. So why can't scientists? Why does just about every popular science book that you pick up evoke unpleasant memories of school by trying to teach you instead of tell you?

Part of the problem lies with nature. If nature did the decent thing and followed the dictates of human common sense, her rules would be easy to talk about. The famous Victorian biologist T H Huxley was so sure that nature must obey human logic that he even defined science as "applied common sense". Huxley might have been 100 per cent right in his famous defence of Darwinism against the strictures of Bishop Wilberforce, but, when it came to defining science itself, he was closer to 100 per cent wrong.

It has taken thousands of years of patient work for scientists to discover that many of the most important rules of nature are counter-intuitive. It takes years of training for scientists to overcome their common sense and to accept the real rules of nature to an extent where they can use those rules as tools in analysing and understanding the physical world.

Luckily, it does not need a professional training to watch and follow how scientists apply nature's paradoxical rules any more than it needs footballing skills to watch and follow a football match. In my book How to Dunk a Doughnut, I act as the scientific equivalent of a football commentator who has played alongside some pretty good players, and who is now on the sidelines telling the crowd what is really going on out there. "Out there" is the ordinary world, and I show how a scientist might view the activities of an ordinary day, from the early morning dunking of a biscuit or doughnut to a connubial conclusion after a satisfying meal. Science has actually gained much from a consideration of such pedestrian activities. Newton discovered "Newton black films", which are similar to the membranes that encapsulate all living cells, from watching the colours in soap bubbles in his bathroom. The Anglo-American Count Rumford discovered the principle of heat convection after burning his mouth on a hot apple pie. Benjamin Franklin discovered the nature of lightning by flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and found the first method for measuring the size of a molecule after observing the calming effect of dirty washing-up water on the waves in a ship's wake.

Scientists at play (another theme of the book) have made equally important discoveries. My Bristol University colleague Mike Berry recently overturned a hundred years of conventional wisdom about magnetic levitation after observing the behaviour of a toy metal frog in a shop window. The American Irving Langmuir, skimming the tops of clouds with the wheels of his two-seater biplane just after the Second World War, made the crucial observation that led to the development of cloud-seeding (and which also led to the remarkable effort by one American state to sue another for the theft of its rain).

Scientists think about everything in scientific terms, and we are for ever on the lookout for curious phenomena and interesting interpretations. We are passionate about life, because every aspect of life fascinates us. Hardly any of us make bombs in our bathrooms.

We are more likely to be found, as Newton was, playing with the soap bubbles in the bath. We view the world more through the eyes of a child than through the eyes of a Frankenstein. The Frankenstein image is still there though, and will probably remain until scientists learn to share their way of viewing the world more effectively. After my village postmaster produced his sally about New Scientist, I wrote to the magazine, suggesting that a more accurate picture of the scientists and their enterprise might be engendered by changing the title to New Environmentally Responsible Devotee of Science. On second thought, maybe the new implied acronym would not be that helpful, either. We obviously still have some way to go in improving our image.

Len Fisher's How to Dunk a Doughnut: the science of everyday life is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson