Review: The Wave Watcher's Companion


The Wave Watcher's Companion: From Ocean Waves to Light Waves via Shock Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life's Undulations
Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Perigee (USA), Bloomsbury (UK), July 2010, $22.95

This book was on my reading list, and then on my shelf, for ages. Now I wish I'd snapped it up and read it immediately. In my defence, the end of 2010 was a busy time for me, what with turning my career upside down and everything, but I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere...

If you think of yourself as a geophysicist, stop reading this review and buy this book immediately. 

OK, now they've gone, we can look more closely. Gavin Pretor-Pinney is the chap behind The Cloud Appreciation Society, the author of The Cloudspotter's Guide, and co-creator of The Idler Magazine. He not a scientist, but a witty writer with a high curiosity index. The book reads like an extended blog post, or a chat in the pub. A really geeky chat. 

Geophysicists are naturally drawn to all things wavy, but the book touches on sedimentology too — from dunes to tsunamis to seiches. Indeed, the author prods at some interesting questions about what exactly waves are, and whether bedforms like dunes (right) qualify as waves or not. According to Andreas Baas, "it all depends on how loose is your definition of a wave." Pretor-Pinney likes to connect all possible dots, so he settles for a loose definition, backing it up with comparisons to tanks and traffic jams. 

The most eye-opening part for me was Chapter 6, The Fifth Wave, about shock waves. I never knew that there's a whole class of waves that don't obey the normal rules of wave motion: they don't obey the speed limits, they don't reflect or refract properly, and they can't even be bothered to interfere like normal (that is, linear) waves. Just one of those moments when you realize that everything you think you know is actually a gross simplification. I love those moments.

The book is a little light on explanation. Quite a few of the more interesting parts end a little abruptly with something like, "weird, huh?". But there are plenty of notes for keeners to follow up on, and the upside is the jaunty pace and adventurous mix of examples. This one goes on my 're-read some day' shelf. (I don't re-read books, but it's the thought that counts).

Figure excerpt from Pretor-Pinney's book, copyright of the author and Penguin Publishing USA. Considered fair use.