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 subtext—but 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 does—and does well—is convey the richness of the material world and the ingenuity of humankind in making use of it.
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