Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down (Google eBook)
For anyone who has ever wondered why suspension bridges don't collapse under eight lanes of traffic, how dams hold back-or give way under-thousands of gallons of water, or what principles guide the design of a skyscraper or a kangaroo, this book will ease your anxiety and answer your questions. J. E. Gordon strips engineering of its confusing technical terms, communicating its founding principles in accessible, witty prose.
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J. E. Gordon died recently and I am sorry that I never met him. Very sorry. He has not been a very prolific writer of books, which is a great pity, but what he has written has been good or great. Structures was great.
Now, understand me clearly: I don't mean that it was a nice book, a book to enjoy reading, a book that I personally think was pretty good all round, an interesting, book or even a gripping book, a tour de force of good writing.
Yes, it was all of those.
But that is not the point.
It was great book. If it fades into non-existence, civilisation will have lost something that we had no right to lose.
There is no such thing as the greatest popular science book. Anyone who tells you that they have found such a thing, you might as well neglect; he doesn't know what he is talking about. The measure of a book's greatness is not to be found in its length nor the length of its words, nor yet in its popularity. It is to be found in any of many things, and this means that precise standards are misleading. However, though I shirk comparisons, "Structures" is inescapably on the short, short list of the world's greatest popular science writing. Gordon stands with Wells, Tyndall, Boys, Asimov, Gardner, Clarke, and perhaps a couple of dozen greats. He stands comfortably and naturally, his place assured.
This makes sense, because it reflects the way that Gordon wrote. He was highly unpretentious, pleasantly, unapologetically wry, informatively erudite, and appropriately for a book with such a title, exceptionally edifying.
For years I have been recommending the book to people who should enjoy it and profit by it, but less than half of them actually took my recommendation seriously.
"Structures"??? What next? "Abstract Algebra"? "Ancient Greek Etymology"? You can't be serious!
Can't I? Trust me; I am not a doctor. I own no shares in the publishers. Get the book and set aside an idle weekend. Skip the table of contents and begin at chapter 1 and read. If you you do not feel rewarded and gripped in the first couple of pages, the soul of your intellect is in peril, and what is worse, your sense of fun is shrivelling.
And what is it all about? It is about how many things work. It is indeed about why things don't fall down, or, often, why they do indeed fall down. It is about how sausages burst and worms don't. It is about how easy it is to bamboozle congressmen and why winds break bridges. It is about how Chinese junks hold up their rigging by faith and why "No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse." It is why strengthening the spar that is prone to break in a monoplane's wing might increase the rate of failure.
And more. Entertaining, intriguing, neatly put, and above all enriching.
We owe him a great deal, and you owe yourself a couple of hours reading this book.