Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Wave Watcher's Companion: a very short review

Gavin Pretor-Pinney's The Wave Watcher's Companion: Ocean Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life's Undulations is not an old book, but it's not a brand-new book, either.

It's one of those odd little books that appeal to somebody like me; I had it on my list for a while, and eventually it arrived!

Waves takes as its starting point the familiar: you are sitting on the beach, watching the waves crash against the shoreline, when it occurs to you that you don't really understand what that phrase actually means: what is truly going on when "the waves crash against the shoreline".

Pretor-Pinney, being a curious sort, digs into it, and follow it where it leads him, and even though the book is at times a bit meandering and filled with a bit of unnecessary miscellany (did "Mad Jack" Churchill's World War II escapades really deserve inclusion?), the result is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through all sorts of waves:

  • Ocean waves
  • Sound waves
  • Radio waves
  • Shock waves
  • Tidal waves
  • Earthquake waves
  • And, finally, surfers enjoying waves breaking upon the shore

With lots of other waves along the way.

Among the parts that really stood out to me are:

  • a section in which Pretor-Pinney talks about how a Japanese mathematician used wave-theoretic equations to explore the behavior of traffic jams on crowded roadways;
  • a part about how carefully-controlled shock waves can be used in kidney-stone therapy;
  • and a silly-but-amusing diversion into the controversy about who invented "the wave" at sports stadiums (was it a Coca-Cola ad that aired during the 1986 World Cup competition in Mexico, a group of devoted University of Washington Huskies fans in the fall of 1981, or perhaps a fanatic follower of the Oakland Athletics nick-named "Krazy George" who beat a drum in the stands during the Yankees-Athletics playoff series of 1981?).

If you're into popular science books, this is a very nice one, and Pretor-Pinney is very skilled at knowing how to make you smarter without making you feel exhausted; when the Japanese mathematician explains that

"A stop-and-go wave is a cluster solution of a non-energy-conserved dissipative system"
Pretor-Pinney has the good sense to realize that there's more work to do here to help you get the point, and spends another couple pages breaking that down into bits and pieces, showing you how you already know enough to understand what is being said, and leaves you willing to keep plugging along, unafraid to, later in the book, tackle more challenging topics such as Maxell's equations, or the difference between the P-wave and S-wave delivered by earthquakes, and the tough distinctions between which sort of waves represent energy moving through a medium, versus those which appear wave-like, but in fact are wholly different, such as crowd waves, or the behavior of sand dunes in the desert.

I'm passing Waves along to the next person; I enjoyed it, and now it's time for somebody else to.

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