The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor

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Overview

Praise for Princeton's original edition: I found Gordon's writing style fascinating; his book reads like a novel, and the technical content is superb."—Enoch J. Durbin, Princeton University

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Editorial Reviews

Science Books and Films

Praise for Princeton's original edition: "Princeton has brought to the public a highly readable treatise on the science of materials that emphasizes the strength of chemical and physical bonds, crystal structure, and cracks. . . . The author admits the necessity of being highly selective in the materials he can discuss so broadly, but he ably presents chemical and physical problems and how they have been solved in an orderly fashion, and he shows that the strength of materials is influenced as much by their environment and loading systems as by their own structures and shapes.
— S. W. Dobyns
American Journal of Physics - Daniel C. Mattis
I was thoroughly charmed and won over by this book which I now recommend to all my colleagues.
Science Books and Films - S. W. Dobyns
Praise for Princeton's original edition: Princeton has brought to the public a highly readable treatise on the science of materials that emphasizes the strength of chemical and physical bonds, crystal structure, and cracks. . . . The author admits the necessity of being highly selective in the materials he can discuss so broadly, but he ably presents chemical and physical problems and how they have been solved in an orderly fashion, and he shows that the strength of materials is influenced as much by their environment and loading systems as by their own structures and shapes.
From the Publisher
"I was thoroughly charmed and won over by this book which I now recommend to all my colleagues."—Daniel C. Mattis, American Journal of Physics

Praise for Princeton's original edition: Princeton has brought to the public a highly readable treatise on the science of materials that emphasizes the strength of chemical and physical bonds, crystal structure, and cracks. . . . The author admits the necessity of being highly selective in the materials he can discuss so broadly, but he ably presents chemical and physical problems and how they have been solved in an orderly fashion, and he shows that the strength of materials is influenced as much by their environment and loading systems as by their own structures and shapes."—S. W. Dobyns, Science Books and Films

American Journal of Physics
I was thoroughly charmed and won over by this book which I now recommend to all my colleagues.
— Daniel C. Mattis
Science Books & Films
Praise for Princeton's original edition: Princeton has brought to the public a highly readable treatise on the science of materials that emphasizes the strength of chemical and physical bonds, crystal structure, and cracks. . . . The author admits the necessity of being highly selective in the materials he can discuss so broadly, but he ably presents chemical and physical problems and how they have been solved in an orderly fashion, and he shows that the strength of materials is influenced as much by their environment and loading systems as by their own structures and shapes.
— S. W. Dobyns
Science Books & Films
Praise for Princeton's original edition: "Princeton has brought to the public a highly readable treatise on the science of materials that emphasizes the strength of chemical and physical bonds, crystal structure, and cracks. . . . The author admits the necessity of being highly selective in the materials he can discuss so broadly, but he ably presents chemical and physical problems and how they have been solved in an orderly fashion, and he shows that the strength of materials is influenced as much by their environment and loading systems as by their own structures and shapes.
— S. W. Dobyns
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691125480
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2006
  • Series: Princeton Science Library Series
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

J. E. Gordon (1913-1998) was Professor of Materials Technology Emeritus at the University of Reading and is the author of "Structures, or Why Things Don't Fall Down". Philip Ball is a freelance science writer and a consultant editor for "Nature", and is the author of "Designing the Molecular World" and "Made to Measure" (both Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor


By J. E. Gordon

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12548-0


Introduction

by Philip Ball

Any popular-science book written at the end of the 1960s must almost by definition be old fashioned. And since they will not yet have acquired the antique glamour of, say, Darwin's Origin of Species, and since science now moves so fast, it is rare that such books are read anymore-and surely rarer still that they are reprinted more than three decades later.

One might argue that, since it deals with basic principles that cannot be tarnished by the passing years, Jim Gordon's The New Science of Strong Materials is more resistant to obsolescence than many similar attempts to bring science to a lay audience. That, however, is no guarantee of longevity. Gordon's book is indeed "old fashioned" in a sense, and, for books probably more than for any other cultural artifact, that is usually enough to banish a work to oblivion-which in this case tends to mean those curious shelves of secondhand bookshops that do not quite know what to do with science, lined with dusty manuals on valve electronics and monochrome paeans to the wonders of rocketry. Instead, here we have a new edition for a new audience, for the book remains as popular as ever.

The reason for this is, of course, that The New Science of Strong Materials belongs to that prestigious group of popular-science books-among them, James Watson's The Double Helix, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, and Jacob Bronowksi's The Ascent of Man- that can be read not simply for edification but for pleasure. And the reason why this is so is obvious, although desperately hard to reproduce: Gordon has evidently written it for pleasure too. He is enjoying himself on every page.

In the manner of a certain kind of British academic of the early postwar era, he sometimes conspires to mask that enjoyment by adopting the guise of a grumpy man who has little patience with the foolishness of the modern world: "Many products wear out-or rather go out of service-for silly, shoddy reasons (Oh no, sir, we don't stock spares for out-of-date models)." But the reader knows that this is part of the performance. The role being performed here is that of the down-to-earth engineer who speaks to you in plain, simple language, neither condescending nor aloof, someone who can convince you that everyday questions like that posed in the book's subtitle have everyday answers that anyone can understand.

It is certainly "old fashioned" to speak this way today. Increasingly, science books, in an ever more crowded market, must make grand claims, enticing us with promises to uncover the secrets of consciousness, or of the origin of the universe, or of "what it means to be human." One wonders how easy Gordon would have found it to secure a publisher today with his tables of Young's moduli, his stress-strain curves, and, most of all, his equations. Not for him the "Hawking rule" that every equation in a text aimed at a lay audience will cut sales by a factor of ten; he simply tells the reader that "I have cut out the whole of the mathematics except for a very little genuinely childish elementary algebra which can be followed by anybody with a negligible effort." What could be more effective in warning the reader that claims of mathematical incompetence will not be tolerated, when all they are being asked to do is to process a few ratios and square roots?

A book written by a scientist primarily for his or her own enjoyment is often a doomed project, partly because he or she will find little satisfaction in laboriously setting out the basic concepts that any nonspecialist reader needs to grasp before the light of understanding dawns. But Gordon is blessed with that rare combination, best known from the writings of the physicist Richard Feynman: a clear, concise, and eloquent writing style coupled with an inexhaustible delight at how things work. The clarity comes from a sense that Gordon is never explaining facts dutifully, but is doing so because the process of explanation is genuinely illuminating to him too. "It's so beautifully simple," you can sense him thinking as he contemplates along with us an image of the SS Schenectady cracked neatly in half-echoing Feynman's famous rubber-ring experiment at the hearings of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

What is perhaps most astonishing about the continuing allure of The New Science of Strong Materials, however, is that it is really a book about engineering and technology. The literary category of "popular engineering" is one that does not really exist, and shows no sign of emerging. This is not to say that there are no good or even moderately successful books for a general audience about applied science; but they hardly feature in the current excitement about the interactions of science and culture, evidenced for example in talk of a "third culture" where, echoing the Renaissance, the sciences and the arts meet and cross-fertilize one another. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the designer of such engineering marvels as the iron-hulled SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, was recently voted the second "Greatest Briton" by the British people; but it seems unlikely that the vast majority of his advocates would have been able to name a single living engineer-a fact lamented by Lord Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, in the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures in 2005. The reader of Gordon's book can have no illusions that it is going to reveal deep and recondite answers to the questions raised by our own existence. Instead, Gordon says at the outset, his themes are such issues as "Why do things break?" "Why is steel tough and why is glass brittle?" and "Why does wood split?"

There's no denying that the audience interested in such questions is going to be rather select (congratulations on being part of it). But this wasn't always so. The New Science of Strong Materials begins by quoting Michael Faraday as he ponders the mystery of cohesion, and that is a nice reminder that, when Faraday and his mentor Humphry Davy drew crowds from the most refined society to the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, London, the audience commonly came not to hear about the brain or cosmology but about tarmac and rubber-about the application of these and other technologies to their lives. This is the tradition that Gordon's book perpetuates, and one can hope that it will one day seem equally important to the public to know how a silicon chip is put together, or why abalone shell is so tough, or how plastics can be manufactured without organic solvents. For these are the kinds of problems that are changing our lives, every day, in ways that we can barely anticipate. "More and more," Gordon says, "one comes to see that it is the everyday things which are interesting, important and intellectually difficult."

The benefits of the broad view

Born in England's Lake District in Cumbria in 1913, Jim Gordon graduated as a naval architect from Glasgow University. He worked as a young man in the Scottish shipyards, but it was clear that he was going to be no ordinary engineer. His interests were eclectic, and he took them all seriously. He not only helped to build boats but sailed in them too: sailing was his joy, and undoubtedly this pursuit fed his appreciation of how important it is to match materials and structures to function, and how one can hardly overstate the virtues of traditional materials. Both The New Science of Strong Materials and its popular sequel, Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down, draw heavily on examples from naval history past and present. His passion for naval design informed his work on aircraft, as did his interests in gliding and falconry.

Gordon's knowledge of classics shines out clearly in his discussions of the architecture and structural engineering of the ancient world, and he counted several classical scholars among his friends. (He learned Greek during the long nights on wartime duty for the Home Guard, waiting to fight fires.) This interest stimulated Gordon's later work on the armor of ancient cultures, and he was convinced that materials have played a pivotal role in shaping historical events, anticipating the modern interest in "materials culture." Indeed, after he was appointed professor of materials science by the University of Reading in 1968, Gordon established a joint degree in engineering and classics-a combination whose extraordinarily rich potential was never quite realized because few students proved to possess the catholic interests and diverse talents that Gordon had. In this regard, he was a cultural bridge very much in the mold of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the Scottish zoologist (and classicist) who more or less founded the field of biomechanics with his blend of biology and engineering in On Growth and Form(1917). Gordon admired Thompson's book, and Structures echoes its juxtaposition of bridges and vertebrate skeletons, while admitting that "for all its many virtues, the engineering principles expressed are not always sound."

Gordon was a devotee of the arts, and was himself a keen amateur painter and photographer. He confessed to having dodged out of many a lecture as an undergraduate at Glasgow, "panting for air," and taken himself off to Glasgow Art Gallery. While certainly no misty-eyed romantic, he expressed the regret that we seem to live in "an age rather noticeably lacking in inherent grace and charm." He wrote passionately about the need to marry technology to good design-in the manner of Walter Gropius's Bauhaus school, perhaps, although Gordon makes clear that the functionalist aesthetic was not at all what he had in mind: he felt that the scientific and aesthetic functions of an artifact could and should be considered independently. That led him to propose measures that would have collided messily with contemporary design values, such as making suspension bridges look like medieval castles. "What is wrong with eighteenth-century 'Gothick' buildings?" he asked. "Let us have lots of ornament." What a shame he is not here now to defend that case against the modernists and structuralists-it would have been an entertaining battle, and Gordon a formidable opponent.

Yet Gordon's own tastes appear to have been more restrained. He designed the spacious garden of his house near Didcot in Oxfordshire: a formal, neoclassical composition of lawn and hedge decorated with stone urns that became the venue for lavish lunch parties (the wine and sherry flowed so liberally on these occasions that guests often found themselves staying the night). Gordon favored an informal yet modest literary style-he treasured the works of Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling-and that is reflected in his own writing, which is never dry but achieves an airy conversational tone that belies its carefully crafted nature. Gordon worked very hard, a dogged two-fingered typist who eschewed word processors and accumulated draft after draft of text, to attain a prose style that sounds as though it has flowed casually from the well-stocked storehouse of his head. When his colleagues remarked breezily of his popular books, "Oh well, of course you have a flair for that kind of thing," Gordon responded that "to make money by writing it probably helps to possess some tiny spark of ingrained talent but I most solemnly assure you that 99% of the matter is a question, not of genteel perspiration, but of sheer labourer's sweat."

During the Second World War, Gordon was brought to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in England, where his boat-designing skills were applied to aircraft. (Even here, however, he managed also to work on the inflatable dinghies carried by bomber aircraft, which he tested in person.) Engineering was at that time largely a matter of working with tried-and-tested materials, particularly metals: to the extent that the discipline of materials science existed at all, it was typically all about metallurgy. At Farnborough, however, Gordon helped to introduce other materials into aircraft design-not just the wood that he had learned to trust from his naval experience, but also new fabrics such as plastics and fiber composites. One such composite material found its way into the seat of a Spitfire fighter.

After the war, Gordon continued this work on new materials at the research laboratory of the company Tube Investments at Hinxton Hall, near Cambridge. It was a productive time, but Gordon watched bitterly as the company gradually lost interest in research and, in his view, squandered its technological opportunities-a lack of foresight that he found distressingly common (some would say it still is) in British industry. As a result, he returned to work on aeronautical engineering for the Air Ministry at the Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE) at Waltham Abbey, northeast of London. Here he began to introduce tough composite materials, such as ceramic "whisker" fibers made from silicon carbide embedded in a softer matrix, into the body of aircraft. Gordon's legacy at Farnborough meanwhile spawned the development there of stiff carbon fibers in the early 1960s. In 1968 he was wooed by Reading University-initially this was to be a joint appointment with the ERDE, but for someone with Gordon's "relaxed" organizational approach this did not work out so well. Even his wife, Theodora, sometimes found it hard to know where, between his various bases, he might be found.

As is common with many inspirational figures, Gordon did not excel at the administrative duties that academia imposes: he tended to ignore them until they went away. But his lectures were as engaging and as popular as his books-where communication was concerned, the one fault he would not tolerate was dullness. The acerbic wit of his two books presented endless headaches to the translators of the many foreign-language editions they engendered. In conversation, Gordon developed a fine line in polite expressions of deep skepticism: one always knew that trouble would follow when he began, "Well, you know far more about this than I do, but ..." Such comments were put to most effect in deflating pomposity, since the only fools that Gordon really would not suffer gladly were conceited ones.

Gordon was justly proud of his books, delighting in the fact that they were translated into over twenty languages and were used simultaneously in the Cold War military academies of both the United States and the Soviet Union. In British schools, they were assigned as study texts for both physics and English. And we might have had more from him before he died in 1998. He wrote a draft of a book on the development of warships, and another on "Kipling and engineering": both apparently await the attentions of an editor. And he discussed with his colleague George Jeronomidis at Reading the idea of a book called "Wood, Trees and People," which would have expounded on the sound natural engineering of this most beloved of his traditional materials. What the materials and engineering communities did get from Gordon, however, was the valuable notion that there is nothing more beneficial to their fields than interdisciplinarity: the art of thinking broadly.

New functions

In Gordon's day, the science of materials was largely about strength, and that is reflected in the book's title. What engineers wanted were new materials that would not break. It seems at first glance to be obvious that the science and technology of materials has long been a quest for strength: for materials with which one can build towers and bridges, and armor and ships, and then airplanes and spacecraft. But Gordon recognized that strength is not of much use in many applications without toughness. A ceramic material can be strong, but also brittle: the moment a crack appears, all is lost. The key issue is then that of how to stop cracks-to prevent them either from forming or from propagating. This is the territory that Gordon negotiates, as he explains why it is that cracks surge like lightning through a brittle solid, why they can be foiled by laminates and other composite materials, why glass fibers are so (nonintuitively) strong, and why metals tend to bend and stretch instead of just cracking.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor by J. E. Gordon Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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