NUTS AND BOLTS

SEVEN SMALL INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (IN A BIG WAY)

A quirky, entertaining riff on the building blocks of engineering.

The author of Built returns with an exploration of the “fundamental building blocks without which…complex machinery wouldn’t exist.”

As structural engineer Agrawal ably demonstrates, from the dishwasher to the International Space Station, modern life depends on some combination of the nail, wheel, spring, magnet, lens, string, and pump. With the invention of the nail, our ancient ancestors could build houses, boats, weapons, and other vital things. Made by hand until the 19th century, metal nails were so expensive that people who moved often burned down their house to recover them. A family of nail cousins—rivets, screws, and bolts—followed. So ingenious is the wheel that some historians argue that it wasn’t independently invented many times, as some believe, but by a single genius whose invention quickly spread across Eurasia. Wheeled transportation conquered much of the world nearly overnight about 6,000 years ago. Springs store and release energy when they change shape. Perhaps the first was the bow, but today they take part in the widest range of inventions. As dampers against noise, vibration, and earthquakes, springs support machinery and even entire buildings. The magnet, a natural phenomenon, is the basis of essentials in the modern world from light bulbs to the internet. Curved glass (i.e., lenses) was known since the dawn of civilization, but humanity didn’t hit the jackpot until the 17th century produced the microscope and telescope. Readers searching for simple explanations of how things work may prefer Henry Petroski; Agrawal, an expert guide, emphasizes the big picture. She often compellingly digresses into related areas such as the varieties of string instruments and her personal experience with in vitro fertilization. Discussing the final invention on her list—the pump—the author emphasizes the heart, but also covers breast pumps and related topics.

A quirky, entertaining riff on the building blocks of engineering.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2023

ISBN: 9781324021520

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2023

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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