Physics for Entertainment

Update: I’m finally home after a month or so of nonstop events, including several xkcd book fund-raisers/signings.  I met tons of cool people, we raised a lot of money for the EFF and Room to Read, and at one point I signed a book for a robot.  Thank you to everyone who ordered a copy, by the way!  I hope you like it.  They’re shipping out nicely, and we’re about ready to order a second printing.

The events and travel were a huge amount of fun, and I loved getting to talk to (or at) so many of you cool people.  But I’m an introvert at heart, and after doing that much socializing I feel a powerful urge to hide in my room for about a month.  At some point in my travels I seem to have picked up a cold that’s been keeping me down for a couple days, so it’s just as well that I don’t have any more events on the immediate calendar.  There’s no fever, so it’s not swine flu, but it’s keeping me awake at night and I’m going through a lot of tissues and cough medicine.  But it should blow over in a couple days, and then I’ll get to spend a while quietly working on new projects!

While I’m doing that, here’s a bit about a neat book I found recently:

Physics for Entertainment:

Physics for Entertainment was written by Yakov Perelman in the 1920′s (in Russian) and updated periodically through the 1930′s.  There are actually two parts to it, but Volume 1 is long out-of-print (though findable online — more on that later).  The book I have is a 1975 translation of Volume 2. The book is a series of a few hundred examples, no more than one or two pages each, asking a question that illustrates some idea in basic physics.

It’s neat to see what has and hasn’t changed in the last century or so.  Many of the examples he uses seem to be straight out of a modern high school physics textbook, while others were totally new to me.  And some of the answers to the questions he poses seem obvious, but others made me stop and think.  The diagram to the right shows a design for a fountain with no pump — it took me a while to get why it works.  (For an easier-to-build variant, click here.)  Later in the book, he explains the physics of that drinking bird toy.

It’s written in a fun, engaging, conversational style, as if he’s in the room chatting with you about these neat ideas.

There are a lot of diagrams:

And it’s hard not to like the guy:

“If you’ll bear with me for a moment, let’s analyze this fairy tale from a physics standpoint …”  That’s a man after my own heart.

He also spends a lot of time discussing why various perpetual-motion machines won’t work.  it’s interesting to see that there was as thriving a community of free energy people a century ago as there is now, many of their designs based on the same misapplications of physics.

Lastly, when he talks about space travel — from a pre-space-age perspective — he turns starry-eyed and poetic:

I alternate wildly between thinking that it’s totally crazy that we clawed our way up out of the atmosphere and walked on the moon, and thinking that it’s a shame that it turned out to be so boring.  But I really desperately want to see more missions to places like the Jovian moons. If it turns out one of them is teeming with life, we’re gonna feel awfully silly about how long we spent shuffling around in the Martian dust.  Also, Kepler is really exciting, putting us in a much better place to speculate about life in the galaxy.

You can get the printed Volume 2 on Amazon, while Volume 1 was supposedly unavailable for translation or reprint.  However, I mentioned this book at one of the events recently, and reader Matthias Kübel emailed me to let me know Volume 1 is available free online!  I’m looking forward to reading through it.

121 thoughts on “Physics for Entertainment

  1. Wonderful, thank you very much!!!!

    I remember reading this book as a child in Portuguese as I’m from
    Brazil, in the university where my father worked as a biophysics
    teacher. Perpetual-motion machines fascinated me for a long time and
    at the end I decided to study physics :-).

    Sad to read about the fate of Perelman…

    I will try to download it as soon as possible!

  2. Pingback: Read this in Carl Sagan’s voice: “Voyager 1 is currently the farthest human-made object from Earth” (Links) —

  3. Interesting find! My Russian colleuge told me this a very popular book; he read it as a child and used it to prepare teaching high school physics.

    Another interesting note, the author’s son is Grigori Perelman, the mathemation who solved the final proofs for the Poincaré conjecture, and later declined the Fields Medal.

  4. I’m going through the free first volume now. This is fun: “Of course, the impact of a melon is not the same as the bullet’s since melons, after all, are squashy.” (from “Melon as Bomb”).

  5. There are also “Mathematics for Entertainment” and “Astronomy for Entertainment” by the same Author. The books are somewhat popular here in India.

  6. I remember reading this book in the 6th grade, I’d read it like a story book and it was that easy to understand it, the mathematics version by the same author is brilliant as is and another one called physics can be fun. These books are a must read.

  7. I am a die-hard word nerd. Numbers terrify me. I failed freshman algebra. Twice. The only reason I passed physics was because my teacher felt sorry for me. (If I didn’t pass, I wouldn’t graduate on time!)
    I just ordered a copy of the second book from Amazon because I desperately want to understand all that crazy sciency stuff, but no one has ever been able to adequately explain it to me.

  8. Never realized that the books were translated into other languages. That’s cool.
    Perelman’s books (there is an Amazing Math among with Amazing Physics) were one of my favourites when I was a child. I guess somewhere deep in my stuff there still is a 1st edition of Perelman’s math that my grandpa used to own.

  9. Not only did I grow up with this book, in Dutch, I also grew up with a working full-sized glass fountain like the one in the illustration. I always got a kick as a kid explaining how it worked to puzzled grown ups. We didn’t use it that much, though, since it was hard to get the water out of the lower chamber and back into the middle, and dad refused to use a pump. My dad built two versions of it, and would have loved this site if he was still here. Thanks for reminding me of good things.

  10. This reminds me of a similar book published in the 60s by Eric Rogers, “physics for the inquiring mind” which I used for my GCSEs in physics…still in copyright unfortunatly but you can get used copies fairly cheaply :)

  11. Nice post, for some reason it reminds me of The Education of T.C. MITS, an illustrated book from 1942 that merges math with more than a little whimsy.
    Also, happy 25th Birthday and thanks for all the beautiful comics!
    [source: wiki, if I wasn?t supposed to say this, please delete]

  12. Nice to see someone appreciating the incredible breadth of Russian literature and writing. Did you know their vocabulary bigger than English’s?

  13. The weight of the column of water in AB pressurizes the air in bottle B, which is transfered via the air column BC to bottle C. The weight of the column of water AC is less, so the pressure pushes the water up. As long as pan A has water draining into bottle B, and bottle B still has some air space in it, the fountain sprays. Once Bottle B fills up and the water runs up the tube BC to the level of the water in Bottle C, then it stops.

  14. Chris:
    “Another interesting note, the author’s son is Grigori Perelman, the mathemation who solved the final proofs for the Poincaré conjecture, and later declined the Fields Medal.”

    No, his father just has the same name.

  15. I have been reading the online copy of Physics for Entertainment 1.

    Perelman wrote at some length in that volume about “perpetual motion” machines, for example in the section on the “Perpetual” Clock:

    The fundamental difference between such “gift-power” machines and
    “perpetual motion” machines is obvious. Energy is not produced out of
    nothing which was what the inventors of the “perpetual motion”
    machines sought to achieve. It is supplied from an outside source in
    our particular case, the surrounding atmosphere where it is stored up
    by sunlight. To all practical intents a “gift-power” machine would
    give the same advantage as could be derived from a “perpetual motion”
    one if ever invented were it not so costly, as it is in most cases.”
    ( p.105)

  16. Thomas, it isn’t a perpetual motion machine because the water falls from bottle B to bottle C, then it stops.

    To me it looks like a siphon. It gets away with being open to the atmosphere at the top because it is closed to the atmosphere at the bottom.

    It occured to me that if you built the simplified version on a seesaw arrangement, it would be easy to make it run backwards once it had finished by tipping the seesaw… the problem is the nozzle in the bowl…

  17. I have both books at home, in Romanian! I remember reading them when I was a kid! They are wonderful, and I’m sure I’ll read them again when I go home for Christmas.

    Thanks for reminding me about them!

  18. I am currently reading this book myself, and I find it interesting to say the least. I really enjoy the writing style of this man; well-written and “light” to read all the way trough. Too bad I overslept the day after I started reading it, didn’t realize that the time was 02:30 in the morning. :)

  19. I remember reading it when I was in Grade 3. It was a Hindi translation and was gifted to me by someone. To date, I consider it the gift I enjoyed and profited most from.

    Thanks for the blag entry. It really brought back some very awesome memories.

  20. I read both volumes as a child (in Arabic). Strange enough, both volumes used to be sold in Egypt bound together as one huge volume. This book used to be very popular here! Actually, I always run into copies of it whenever I go to any old bookshop in Cairo.

  21. If you like this type of book, you might like something by Bill Bryson titled ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. It goes from atoms to quarks to why the dodo’s extinct, how glaciers work, what would happen if the sun exploded(whopee!) and literally almost everything in between. It’s about 90% responsible for me passing Chemistry.
    And it’s genuinely funny.

  22. Hey what about weapons for entertainment? I recently watched footage of troops whoopin’ and hollerin’ at the result of artillery fire in Afghanistan. Never mind that there were people dying at the other end in that smoke and fire. Wow, it looked like *fun*.

    Apologies for bringing the mood down.

  23. In Soviet Russia(tm), we grew up with this book. That puzzling look on your face when you see the picture of “New Soviet car ZIL-111″ was matched by mine, while I was reading Russian translation of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (it was quite popular).

  24. re: I alternate wildly between thinking that it’s totally crazy that we clawed our way up out of the atmosphere and walked on the moon, and thinking that it’s a shame that it turned out to be so boring.

    It isn’t boring once you launch on quest to find convincing– independently verifiable– evidence that anyone actually walked on the moon and came back to tell about it. Seriously! Can you find any?

    Meanwhile, gotta get that book and read it!


  25. I remember reading this as a kid in Russia. I loved this book so much! ^^ Ahh nostalgia…

  26. I will add my two cents to the \I read that book in my childhood in language X\ where, in my case, X=Estonian

  27. I remember it! I read this book as a kid more than 25 years ago back in Iran. I found both volumes among my father’s old books in tha attic. They were translated from Russian to Persian by Mir publishing company in Moscow. Through this book I was fascinated with physics. Now that I think about it, I decided to become a scientist when I was 10 right after reading these books! Now I’m a Biomechanics PhD and work in a reseach lab. Thanks Mr. Perelman!

  28. “Physics for Entertainment was written by Yakov Perelman in the 1920’s (in Russian) and updated periodically through the 1930’s. ” If you like the type of book, you might like something.

  29. Physics is indeed fun and helps describe the world through numerical analysis. However, if it is not corrected it will not fulfill its promise. Information that criticizes the legitimacy of the constancy of speed of light indicates that Relativity might be wrong. Paul Davies of an American University indicated that that might just be the case.special relativity or relativity

  30. So here I was looking for a good article regarding this topic. Searching in Yahoo I found this blog post. After reading this information I’m very glad to say that I have finally found exactly what I was looking for. I will make sure to save this website and check it out on a constant basis. Thanks a lot.

  31. You might like “How Everything Works” by Louis Bloomfield. He examines every day situations and makes physics out of them, not unlike this book.

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