Science Book a Day Interviews Steven Vogel

vogelSpecial thanks to Steven Vogel for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Life of a Leaf

Steven Vogel’s projects mainly ask how the structural arrangements of organisms reflect adaptation to the mechanics of moving fluids. He has worked on such things as the design of fly wings for producing lift and of moth antennae for transmitting air, on the form of leaves in relation to convective cooling in very low winds and to drag-reducing reconfigurations in very high winds, on energy extraction from velocity gradients to improve filtration in sponges and to ventilate deep terrestrial burrows, and on the use of flow-induced subambient pressure to refill pulse-jetting scallops and squid. In addition, he is interested in the problems of written communication of science. – From his Duke University Profile

#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book? & #2 – Your background seems to be in biomechanics. How does The Life of a Leaf fit in with this work?

I’ve long been interested in the way the design and operation of organisms, both animals and plants, reflects the need to get along in their immediate, macroscopic physical worlds – especially the mechanical aspects of that world.  So I worried about adaptations in relation to properties of fluids such as density, viscosity, and surface tension; to properties of materials such as strength, extensibility, and resilience; to properties of structures such as flexural and torsional stiffness; and to thermal properties such as thermal capacity, thermal conductivity, absorptivity, and emissivity.  Never mind, on the one hand cells and molecules, and, on the other, inter-organism interactions and large-scale climatic matters.  I worry about things about as close to everyday reality as can be.  And I write books that look at facets of this business, both textbooks of comparative biomechanics and of biological fluid mechanics, and some trade books.

It seemed worth a shot to try a book about this physical world with a protagonist.  So what to pick?  Animals grab readers better than plants, but animals demand entry almost immediately into the Newtonian world of motion, and that seemed hard to do in a way both instructive and non-offputting.  So I picked a leaf on a tree, which had the dual advantages of being very close to home and of involving a surprising diversity of physical matters – fluid, solid, and thermal especially.  It also taught me a lot about plants, something not well handled by my formal education.  And I like to learn new things, even in my early 70s.

#3 – Your book talks about the macro and the micro, including science from different disciplines and [gasp] equations. What is your philosophy when communicating science?

I encapsulate my philosophy in a commandment I once taped over my computer, “Explain, dammit, don’t just mention.”  Meaning, among other things, never introduce and define a term unless you need it to make an explanation work, try not to hide behind catch-all words such as “energy” and “interact” (at least as these are often used).  Put another way, science writers seem too often to hope their readers will leave with the sense of “gee whiz, look what those folks did.” By contrast, I want to leave readers with “hey, now I understand all that stuff I run into all the time.”  In the context of the present book, odd as it may sound, the leaf is a surrogate for one of us.

#4 – Are people losing touch with biology? Can we do a better job of teaching it?

I don’t know whether we’re losing touch with biology.  I do know that too much of biology as always been presented either as a bag of terminology or some kind of revelation; I spent many years trying to reinvent a general course in biology with the theme (unspoken) that it would be the last course that any student, major or non-major, would ever take that addressed biology as a whole.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book you can tell us about?

Yes, I’m very slowly (a few non-serious health problems have slowed things) working on a book that’s a bit of a follow up to my “Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle.”  This one, tentatively “Going Around + sub” looks at the history of human technology connected with making muscle powered rotational machinery – after all, you can’t truly rotate any appendage, but we do so like our wheels and gears and cams and pulleys and windlasses, etc.  

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