Review: The Wave Watcher’s Companion

Geek Culture

Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s new book The Wave Watcher’s Companion arrived a few weeks ago and while I wouldn’t exactly call it light beach reading (although there are plenty of beach references), I found it an entertaining take on a very complex subject. The author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and Co-founder of The Idler magazine, Pretor-Pinney seems to have a gift for tackling the intricacies of natural phenomena with a wealth of examples, illustrations and witty writing that keeps readers from tuning out. Actually, I wish I’d had access to this book back in my university days as it would have helped me tremendously with several dull and bewildering courses.

As a geography major (from too long ago to admit to), I still retained a basic understanding of wave behaviors, especially as they reach shallow waters and begin to crest into the familiar breakers, but Pretor-Pinney delves more deeply into the mechanics of this phenomena, explaining it using wavelength. Basically, shallow water slows the waves down, which forces the waves into a shorter wavelength which eventually reduces circular motion beneath the surface so the water is forced up; the waves pile up against each other and push forward, over top of the wave before them. Of course the author explains things in considerably more detail (and eloquence), categorizing different wave types and including helpful diagrams.

Water behavior and the critical role played by ocean waves simply serves as an introduction to waves in general. Pretor-Pinney segues into waves within our bodies, pointing out that the human heart pumps 100,000 times in a 24 hour period to send 4,300 gallons of blood coursing through the body in waves. Disrupted waves of electrical signals within heart tissue (subject to interference by tissue damage or blood clots in a manner similar to the way artificial structures like a pier will disrupt ocean waves) can lead to dysrhythmia and a heart attack. Other waves within the body are introduced, including the peristaltic wave (which transports food from the esophagus through its journey through the digestive tract) and the mucociliary escalator (the process of cilia transporting particles caught in mucus up to the larynx for disposal). It’s all interesting and the author uses a British wit to describe the processes, resisting the urge to invoke mention of “snot” while slipping in dryly humorous points like: “Whether the result is then politely swallowed or or crudely coughed up has nothing to do with waves. That is purely the result of what your parents have taught you.” In another section (on refraction), Pretor-Pinney concocts an analogy to illustrate the concept that start with a group of aliens crash landing in the desert, then stumbling out of the wreckage in search of a McDonald’s.

Pretor-Pinney points out that waves are everywhere and draws upon hundreds of examples throughout the course of the book’s 336 pages, from animal locomotion to music, SONAR, fishing, the Big Bang, X-rays, radio waves, Wi-Fi, surfing, sand dunes, traffic flow, tides, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and traumatic brain injuries caused by explosive shock waves), thunder and lightning, supersonic flight, earthquakes, Bee shimmering (described as “the most impressive mooning in the natural world“), bird flocking and countless others. By making numerous historical references and tying everything together with modern examples (like crowds doing “The Wave” in a stadium), and phenomena from the natural world, The Wave Watcher’s Companion sucks the reader in to a lengthy exploration of what sounds on the surface to be a potentially boring and very short subject. In fact, while reading the book, I was reminded of James Burke’s excellent Connections TV series -minus the funky white leisure suit, mind you.

While the subject matter and complexity is likely too much for younger geeks, teens or those with a real interest in scientific concepts shouldn’t have much trouble digesting it. I found the book to be both interesting and entertaining and by the end I’d actually learned a great deal, which is always a good thing. Like the best teachers, the author resists the temptation to dumb down the subject, instead using multiple examples and constantly building on a foundation to educate readers.

The Wave Watcher’s Companion: From Ocean Waves to Light Waves via Shock Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life’s Undulations
by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
$22.95 (hardcover)

Wired: Most comprehensive book on waves I’ve seen outside of a textbook but with an irreverent sense of humor and wealth of examples that makes the subject both interesting and entertaining.
Tired: Likely too complex for young readers and the humor is often subtle enough that it may be over their heads.

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