Atoms Under The Floorboards by Chris Woodford (book review)

September 25, 2015 | By | Reply More

Calling Chris Woodford’s book ‘Atoms Under The Floorboards’ is a bit of a misnomer as atoms are everywhere. The sub-title, ‘The Surprising Science Hidden In Your Home’ might not be so commercial but it does explain the subject matter easier. Those of you who claim you don’t understand science should be surprised how much you are a practitioner of its applicants and I’m not talking about computers or other convoluted tech, just the everyday stuff. Woodford explains everything from how a bicycle and car works to the properties of water that makes it singularly unique and why you can fall over on it. He also puts things in perspective from the start by explaining that Albert Einstein started off his career by being a failure and just got lucky from persistence. So if you don’t think you’re very science savvy, then you’ll be in good company.


Throughout this book, Woodford points everything by their shape and how much of an influence this has on what it achieves. I couldn’t help comparing this to how I and other artists draw or paint. In layout, we are more concerned with shape before we get into detail. Maybe the difference between art and science isn’t that far off. From a Science Fiction slant where we make some aspects of the future look mundane or used, having a grasp of how what we use today works might encourage you to think a little about the mechanics if you’re contemplating something new in your stories or paintings.

I was surprised to see cars’ chaises’ were still made of so much metal when the wings are far more fragile these days. However, petrol still seems to be a better energy provider than batteries for the moment.

Speaking of metals, Woodford’s account of iron and how its alloys work should be an eye-opener for many of you. Come to that, so is coating titanium dioxide on glass keeps it clean, although not to its availability. The changes in photochromic glass from silver halide crystals to using complex plastics containing naphthopyrans doesn’t explain why non-description sunglasses are a bit on the expensive side or hard to find the last time I looked.

Reading about how plastics tend towards photodegrade probably explains a comment I made earlier in the year about the faces of expensive character plastic models have paled in the sun.

It was also surprising that Alexander Graham Bell had made moves towards mobile phones long before the versions we have today using light and he was considering this as his better invention. Makes you wonder what he would have made of photocables we have around today. I was also surprised by the latent heat energy of a glacier, although I doubt when melting it would give it all at once. I also liked his demonstration of the laws of thermodynamics heat goes to cold and never the other way around. Saying that, I do wonder how old Woodford’s computer is because my latest laptop keeps a lot cooler and the fan rarely kicks in. Then again, the top surface of the keyboard panel feels a lot cooler as well. Just goes to show how things quickly move on and how much manufacturers are in the science of materials these days.

Even when I know some of this stuff, having a reminder is never a bad idea. I got a reminder of the shear-effect that turns ketchup and toothpaste more liquidy. Likewise, you can also read a lot more into some things and find your own solutions. If you or your spouse snore, then sleeping on your side keeps your air channels open. Looking at how fountain pens work by capillary action is interesting but I wish he’d explained why they leak.

Looking at the nature of wool and how it absorbs water was more of an eye-opener in terms of not only how much water it can absorb but if you want any woollen clothes to regain its shape, lay them flat. Woodford points out how clothes wear out at the joints but also from continually folding the same way. Try keeping your shirts on coat hangers tends to be my solution and not have tight jeans. Do I need to go on? Again, I’m only touching on things I didn’t know or might argue against. There is a lot of information to digest in this book. It also has one of longer extensive notes at the back of the book if you want more details.

When writing Science Fiction, there is a tendency to create a reality where some basic science law is created and changes how certain things are done. Equally, it can also be about applying the science laws we know already in a different way. Even if you know how a lot of things work, I do think you’ll find this book a bit of an eye-opener in terms of science application although I wish Woodford had addressed whether we knew the science before we created something, applied it in refinement or just got plain lucky. One only has to look at the wheel and the differences between a cartwheel and a bicycle wheel to realise that they achieve their purpose by different application.

If someone science savvy as me can have deep thoughts from reading this book then I suspect you will as well. I’m sure you won’t look around your house in quite the same way again. The book is loaded with information and when it takes a little longer to read than I expected, it also means I’m taking more time absorbing it. That’s always a good sign.

GF Willmetts

September 2015

(pub: Bloomsbury Sigma. 336 page indexed small hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK), $27.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-4729-1222-0)

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Category: Books, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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