In this book James Gordon brilliantly manages to simply explain technically complex things: what structures (natural and artificial) are, how they are arranged, how they work, what keeps them together and what tears them apart, what physical laws are behind that and who discovered these laws.
Informally and wittily but without excessive simplification, the author explains how the powerful forces that prevent buildings from collapsing, allow cable bridges to sustain the weight of eight lanes of traffic and dams to hold back thousands of tons of water work. And conversely: why such phenomena as stress, shear, torsion, fracture and compression can lead to catastrophes where wings fall off planes and people break their legs.
Thanks to the casual presentation, the encyclopedic volume of facts, causes and consequences is perceived as a captivating conversation that flows quickly and leaves readers with a pleasant feeling that they had already known all of that (or at the very least, had a suspicion), and finally the knowledge was skillfully laid out in front of them.
The book is addressed to anyone interested in the physical fundamentals and structure of the surrounding material world.
A structure has been defined as “any assemblage of materials which is intended to sustain loads”, and the study of structures is one of the traditional branches of science. If an engineering structure breaks, people are likely to get killed, and so engineers do well to investigate the behaviour of structures with circumspection. But, unfortunately, when they come to tell other people about their subject, something goes badly wrong, for they talk in a strange language, and some of us are left with the conviction that the study of structures and the way in which they carry loads in incomprehensible, irrelevant and very boring indeed.
Yet structures are involved in our lives in so many ways that we cannot really afford to ignore them: after all, every plant and animal and nearly all of the works of man have to sustain greater or less mechanical forces without breaking, and so practically everything is a structure of one kind or another. When we talk about structures we shall have to ask, not only why buildings and bridges fall down and why machinery and aeroplanes sometimes break, but also how worms came to be the shape they are and why a bat can fly into a rose-bush without tearing its wings. How do our tendons work? Why do we get “lumbago”? How were pterodactyls able to weigh so little? Why do birds have feathers? How do our arteries work? What can we do for crippled children? Why are sailing ships rigged in the way they are? Why did the bow of Odysseus have to be so hard to string? Why did the ancients take the wheels off their chariots at night? How did a Greek catapult work? Why is a reed shaken by the wind and why is the Parthenon so beautiful? Can engineers learn from natural structures? What can doctors and biologists and artists and archaeologists learn from engineers?
As it has turned out, the struggle to understand the real reasons why structures work and why things break has been a great deal more difficult and has taken much longer than one might have expected. It is really only quite recently that we have been able to fill in enough of the gaps in our knowledge to answer some of these questions in a very useful or intelligent manner. Naturally, as more of the bits of the jig-saw puzzle are assembled, the general picture becomes clearer: the whole subject is becoming less a study for rather narrow specialists and more one which the ordinary person can find rewarding and relevant to a wide range of general interests.
This book is about modern views on the structural element in Nature, in technology and in everyday life. We shall discuss the ways in which the need to be strong and to support various necessary loads has influenced the development of all sorts of creatures and devices — including man.
From the chapter The Structures in Our Lives, or How to Communicate with Engineers
The second edition corrects errors and misprints made in the first edition.