Author Russ Swan on The Physics Behind...

Interview: Sharon Stevens
Saturday 01 June 2019
reading time: min, words

We caught up with local author Russ Swan to talk about his fascinating book The Physics Behind, as well as the new definition of a kilogram... 


Russ Swan tells me that he started his early study days doing a degree in Sheffield studying engineering. But a call to help - to take photos for the university newspaper - changed the direction of his life entirely. After leaving university, he went on to work as a journalist for a trade magazine, combining his degree with his interest in writing. He used both of those passions to write his first book, The Physics Behind

The Physics Behind is a book that combines factual information about 68 everyday objects with scientific facts, history and with a bit of humour on the side. I actually giggled when I read an article about ice cream and cold beer. At first, I thought that I’d found the perfect way to lose weight. Although I was keen on the idea of eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wasn’t that keen on the beer, but in the name of science of course, I would try it.  Sadly though, reading further on, I discovered that it was all a myth. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as negative calories…

I asked Russ who he thought the book was aimed at, and he suggested non-specialist adults and young adults. I would agree, if you have an intriguing mind about the world of physics, you will find it interesting. The graphics are humorous too, with different colours used for each chapter.  I was impressed to hear that some of the drawings were improved drawings that Russ created himself.

I was shocked to find out that it only took Russ three months to write the book, as well as another three months to edit, before The Physics Behind... was in our high street bookstores. Good news for all you who don’t already have a copy, the second edition will be out in September.

We talked so much, considering the different areas of life that we take for granted and don’t think about the physics behind them, that we nearly forgot to discuss the subject that we had agreed to talk about: the kilogram.

The reported changes to the kilogram came into effect on 20 May 2019. The reasons for the change were because it was discovered that the platinum iridium, alloy prototype kept in three bell jars in Paris, had lost mass. The other reference examples, held elsewhere in the world, were compared and were found to have gained mass. So, in November 2018 at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, a decision was made to redefine the kilogram. The change that followed will make it more reliable and it should retain its weight over time.

In the world of science and metrology, it will have an impact. However, the general public will hardly notice any difference.  Russ informed me that, as an example, the difference will be "a tiny fraction of a grain" in a bag of sugar. This made me curious about 454g (1lb), feeling protective about it, I enquired if it would change and he confirmed that the difference would be minuscule.  Russ also informed me, that the Le Grand K( kilogram prototype) was the last basic unit defined by a lump of something. This means that if one day aliens contacted Earth and wanted to know what a kilogram was, the information can now be sent digitally.

I highly recommend The Physics Behind… Whether you’re a physics graduate or not, there are nine chapters to grab your attention: Modern Life, Entertainment, Analysis, Space, Big Science, Weird Universe, The Environment, Transportation and Everything Else. So, if you have a general interest in physics, or an interest in how and why everyday things work, this book is for you. You will not only learn some incredible information that you can use to carry out further research, or you could impress those around you by sharing some astonishing facts, all while having a giggle too.  For me, it means carrying out further research about the ice cream and beer diet and amazing my students with some surprising facts, while I wait eagerly for the second edition due to be released later in the year. 

The Physics Behind... by Russ Swan is available to buy now for £14.99

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