The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon

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Overview

Stephen L. Sass's The Substance of Civilization shows that the story of human civilization can be read most deeply in the materials we have found or created, used or abused. They have dictated how we build, eat, communicate, wage war, create art, travel, and worship. Some, such as stone, iron, and bronze, lend their names to ages. Others, such as gold, silver, and diamond, contributed to the rise and fall of great empires. How would history have unfolded without glass, paper, steel, cement, or gunpowder? Sass shows us how substances and civilization have evolved together. In antiquity, iron was considered more precious than gold. Spanish miners in the New World thought platinum, which is more rare than silver, a useless nuisance. The celluloid used in movie film had its origins in the search for a substitute for ivory billiard balls. The discovery ages ago that clay could be fired to make pots was revolutionary; so was the more recent discovery that clay also contains the substance that runs our computers.
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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
From the discovery that heating changes the atomic structure of clay resulting in ceramic (because of the loss of water and hydroxyl molecules), to today's world of silicon chips and advanced synthesized polymers, Sass (materials science, Cornell U.) mixes archaeology, history, and materials science to show how the physical properties of different substances has affected the drift of civilization. He discusses the development of weapons, tools, building techniques, and information technologies within the context of the science behind why certain materials are suited for different uses. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Booknews
From the discovery that heating changes the atomic structure of clay resulting in ceramic (because of the loss of water and hydroxyl molecules), to today's world of silicon chips and advanced synthesized polymers, Sass (materials science, Cornell U.) mixes archaeology, history, and materials science to show how the physical properties of different substances has affected the drift of civilization. He discusses the development of weapons, tools, building techniques, and information technologies within the context of the science behind why certain materials are suited for different uses. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Remember when you learned about the Stone Age, followed by Bronze and Iron? Well, it didn't exactly stop there, and Sass, a Cornell materials-science professor, is our guide to all the successive wonders of luck, pluck, and technology that have enabled us to move from cave days to today's steel-polyethylene-and-silicon world. Moving chronologically, with some time out to explain what makes metal metal or introduce notions like yield strength, plastic deformation, and dislocations, Sass treats the reader to a materials-science course for the layperson, laced with lots of didja-knows: Did you know that smelting copper often meant releasing toxic arsenic gas, which is probably why Hephaestus in the Iliad is described as lame? That "carat" comes from the Greek keration, for locust-pod tree, because the dried pod nearly always weighed 200 milligrams (now the standard)? In short, there are gobs of wonderful trivia as well as accounts of the technological innovations that led to ever hotter furnaces, blown glass, steel from iron, and all the latter-day wonders, from synthetic rubber, celluloid, and rayon to aluminum alloys, Kevlar, plastics, silicon chips, and composites. How each of these material discoveries and inventions affected society is an important subtextþbut the point of view is largely apolitical. (The reader will infer that building bigger and better arms, however, has clearly been a strong motivating force for material invention.) Sass is not always successful in getting the reader over technological hurdles; there are pages of photos (unseen), but the text could surely use diagrams as well. What he doesþand does wellþis convey the richness of the materialworld and the ingenuity of humankind in making use of it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559704731
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 8/4/1999
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen L. Sass is a professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, where he has won a number of teaching awards. He currently lives in Ithaca, New York.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Ages of Stone and Clay 13
2 The Age of Metals: A Primer 38
3 Copper and Bronze 49
4 Gold, Silver, and the Rise of Empires 68
5 The Age of Iron 82
6 A Quick History of Glass 98
7 Building for the Ages 124
8 Innovations from the East 134
9 Stoking the Furnace of Capitalism 147
10 The Birth of Modern Metals 176
11 Steel: Master of Them All 203
12 Exploding Billiard Balls and Other Polymers 215
13 Diamond: The Superlative Substance 238
14 Composites: The Lesson of Nature 250
15 The Age of Silicon 265
Epilogue: Materials in the Twenty-First Century 277
Notes 283
Bibliography 288
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