Einstein invented a fridge

Liquid is really interesting

As I was on holiday over the past few weeks, I enjoyed switching off entirely (including — and I hope you noticed — writing this mailing list). I read a bunch more than I normally would. I enjoyed a collection of essays by F SCOTT FITZGERALD on his struggles with being a writer, a fantastic short story collection by TED CHIANG (which made OBAMA’s Summer reading list 2019) and also The Lessons of History by WIL and ARIEL DURANT.

But the most enjoyable book, I think, was Liquid by MARK MIODOWNIK who is director of UCL’s Institute of Making.

Unsurprisingly, the book is about liquid. It follows a plane trip that MIODOWNIK took between London and San Francisco to speak at a conference. Over the course of several chapters, he recalls his trip through the lens of different liquids that he is interacting with. Example: on takeoff, he writes about gasoline. As the drinks trolley goes around, ethanol.

These sorts of books (recall Rain by CYNTHIA BARNETT in an earlier post) are such a pleasure to read mostly because of the level of interest the authors take about relatively commonplace things.

This collection certainly made me feel differently about the plane trips I took this summer, however short.

See you soon,



Pay attention while spreading on toast.

The molecular make-up of the explosive nitroglycerine, for instance, is similar to peanut butter’s.

Hadn’t ever really thought about why this is possible, but now I know:

Look carefully at a pond skater insect as it ‘walks’ on water and you see that its legs are repelled by the water – this happens because the surface tension between the water and the insect’s legs generates a repulsive force that acts against gravity.


The message of the pre-flight ritual is this: you are about to do something that is extremely dangerous, but engineers have made it almost completely safe. The ‘almost’ is emphasized by all the elaborate actions involving the previously mentioned props. The ritual draws a line between your normal life, where you are in charge of your own safety, to your current one, where you are ceding control to a set of people and their engineering systems as they harness one of the most awesomely powerful liquids on the planet to shoot you through the atmosphere to a destination of your choosing. In other words, you need to trust them absolutely, your life is in their hands; and so this ritual, performed before every flight, is really a trust ceremony.

Wine for dogs:

Dogs also get drunk if they drink alcohol, which is why there is a growing market for non-alcoholic wine designed specifically for pets to consume at festive occasions.

Just in case you’re thinking of brewing something for yourself:

Methanol is produced during the fermentation of alcoholic drinks, especially in the production of spirits like vodka and whisky, but it’s removed through the brewing process, so you’re unlikely to encounter it in commercial spirits. If you make moonshine, hooch, poteen, or any other home-brewed spirits, though, you need to be very careful. These drinks are typically made by fermenting starch from crops such as corn, wheat or potatoes. This results in a low-alcohol mixture called a mash, which is then connected to some pipework known as a still, heated up, and distilled into a liquor with a high percentage of alcohol. The first liquid that emerges from the still is concentrated methanol – you have to throw it away. Experienced home brewers know this, but people die every year after making moonshine for the first time.

There’s a section in the book about waves and specifically about tsunamis. What is awful is just how powerful they can be. Ten million swimming pools in a single wave.

As it turns out, just a few hours earlier, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, part of the Earth’s crust had ruptured, causing an earthquake of magnitude 9.0. This is a massive earthquake by any standards. The energy released was estimated to be ten thousand times bigger than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nevertheless, being that far out to sea, it didn’t cause much immediate damage or loss of life. But the earthquake didn’t just shear the tectonic plates of the crust – it also raised the sea floor by several metres. This, in turn, displaced approximately thirty cubic kilometres of water. That’s a lot of water – the equivalent of ten million Olympic swimming pools. And just as moving suddenly in the bath makes the water slosh back and forth, the earthquake set this enormous amount of water into motion.

I’d be crying if someone made me double-blind for the purposes of science. (Sorry).

Double-blind studies have shown that when men smell women’s tears, it lowers their testosterone levels, and they find it less easy to become aroused.

re: Soap Operas

Then, with the invention of the radio in the 1920s, P&G started sponsoring serial dramas, which were mostly listened to by women, alone at home during the day, washing clothes and doing household cleaning; the dramas were very popular and ended up being named after the product that sponsored them – ‘soap operas’.

Most mindblowing fact to come out of this for me was that in between escaping the Nazis and coming up with the theory of general relativity, Einstein dedicated large portions of his life to making a healthier fridge:

Szilard moved to Britain, where he came up with an invention that would change the course of history – not by cooling things down, but by heating them up. It was the principle behind the atomic bomb: the nuclear chain reaction. Meanwhile, Einstein toured Europe while an increasingly hostile Nazi party grew in power. Both Einstein and Szilard eventually ended up in America, where they were able to continue their collaboration, but by then it was too late. Scientists in America had also been working to make refrigerators safer, but they’d approached the problem the other way round – making the working fluids safer, rather than eliminating pumps. In 1930, the chemist Thomas Midgley invented freon liquid; it was hailed as safe and cheap and put Einstein and Szilard out of the refrigeration business. Unfortunately, it turned out freon wasn’t safe at all, but it was fifty years before that came to light, even though Thomas Midgley was known for creating dangerous liquids.