WHY THINGS BREAK by Mark Eberhart


Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart
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Eberhart (Chemistry and Geochemistry/Colorado School of Mines) explains the sometimes catastrophic failures of the materials from which we make things.

The author begins disarmingly, portraying himself at a restaurant table tapping a water glass with a spoon, extending a tiny crack until the glass falls cleanly into two halves. This incident illustrates his lifelong fascination with how and why things break. Eberhart brings his insights to the reader by weaving personal anecdotes—from his childhood fear that cutting butter would release the energy of the atoms within to his arrival in Boston for an interview at MIT without a suitable winter coat—into a fascinating discussion of the forces that hold atoms and molecules together. At the deepest level, those involve calculations of quantum forces and of the shape of molecular bonds. Eberhart helps the reader come to grips with them by looking at real-world examples, including the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle (caused by O-rings that became brittle in cold weather), or the 1988 incident in which 18 feet of an Aloha airliner’s cabin roof peeled off in flight. The author’s technical expertise sometimes leads him to belittle popular concerns, as when he points out that despite the widespread fear of plutonium (in part because of a failure to distinguish among isotopes), there are far more toxic naturally occurring substances, such as botulinum toxin. Even here, he manages to get his point across without looking down his nose at the audience.

A lively, unvarnished look at chemistry on the cutting edge.

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2003
ISBN: 1-4000-4760-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Harmony
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2003