Books

From 'Wonders of the Ancient World' to 'How Spacecraft Fly' we've got it all.  Also, don't forget the poE&Try competition is now open for entries. Our second contest is in recognition of Morey's pioneering work on the internal combustion engine.

Wonders of the Ancient World - Antiquity's Greatest Feats of Design and Engineering

By Justin Pollard
Quercus, out now, £20.00

You've got to hand it to those ancients. When it came to Wonders of the World they didn't muck about. Hanging Gardens in the Babylonian style, oh mighty Nebuchadnezzar? Not a problem, sire. A 30m-high Colossus standing athwart the harbour entrance at Rhodes? Yes, we can do that in the bronze. And who can forget the housewarming party for the 25,000 square-metre canalside palace at Nimrud for 'merciless' Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal, where 69,574 guests boogied away for ten days and ten nights?

But it wasn't all show. As Justin Pollard's book reveals, Wonders took many magnificent forms, from canals and aqueducts, to tombs and temples. They were a global phenomenon, with early civilisations in the Middle East, Europe, India, Japan and the Americas constructing astonishing monuments. Their fame spread far and wide, and Wonders were often visitor attractions as well as places of veneration and worship, or tributes to wealth and power.

'Wonders of the Ancient World' visits 40 such marvels created between the beginning of human civilisation and the start of the medieval period: some now only exist partly in myth; others have survived - to some extent - into the 21st century. Pollard's hit-list includes well-known Wonders such as The Parthenon, The Colosseum, Stonehenge and Petra, along with less-familiar achievements such as the rock-cut shrines of Ellora, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and the Rice Terraces of Banaue (which are still in use after 2,000 years).

Some Wonders had a functional purpose and represented the innovations in science and technology of their time. In the first century BC, the architects of the Tower of the Winds near to the Acropolis aligned the building precisely north - a remarkable feat, as Pollard notes, given that the magnetic compass was not known in Europe until the 13th century AD. The structure also embodied a kind of computational sundial.

The statistics pertaining to the build-quality of Wonders are awesome. Egypt's 4,500-year-old Khufu Pyramid, for instance, originally stood 146.7m high, and is constructed largely of 2.3m limestone blocks weighing 2.5t each. The Borobudur temple on the island of Java, renowned as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments, contains around 56,000 cubic metres of stone held in place without the use of mortar.

Even with the tools and techniques now at our disposal, fabrication on this scale and artistry would remain a daunting project for contemporary architects. The fact that our forebears were able to conceive and construct Wonders with relatively rudimentary building aids - but with unlimited slave power, of course - illustrates what humankind was capable of achieving with basic human ingenuity.

Pollard provides a potted history of each site, with accessible box-outs highlighting aspects of each Wonder's fate. However, the overwhelming magnificence of the places featured also serves to highlight some of the book's limitations; and although subtitled 'Antiquity's greatest feats of design and engineering', most engineers might be disappointed by the lack of technical graphics.

Though light on technical detail, Pollard's prose is engaging enough for the average reader, and, after all, this book looks designed as a glossy gift rather than a historical reference source.

Reviewed by James Hayes, editor of E&T's IT section

How Spacecraft Fly - Spaceflight Without Formulae

By Graham Swinerd
Copernicus Books, out now, £15.00

Steven Hawking once famously opined that for every equation in a book, the audience was halved. Graham Swinerd's book - a sort of 'everything you wanted to know about spacecraft, but were afraid to ask' volume - takes Hawking's advice to heart by avoiding equations entirely. Aimed at non-technical readers, the book requires "no prior knowledge".

The opening chapter of the book reviews, in no more than 22 pages, the conceptual evolution from flat-Earth and Earth-centred constructs to our current, less egocentric, understanding of the universe. This is followed by chapters on orbits and trajectories, methods of attaining orbit, and the space environment. 

The core of the book includes discussion of the various spacecraft subsystems, such as power, propulsion and communications, and a commentary on design. It concludes with a look at planned and hypothetical missions, including manned flights and "exotic systems". Swinerd makes the point that the term "manned" may not be politically correct, but opts to use it anyway because he dislikes "crewed" or "peopled".

Clearly, it is no trivial task to bring the concepts of microgravity, coronal mass ejection and telemetry modulation to a lay audience, and Swinerd makes an excellent attempt. More technical readers will recognise the GCSE-level physics, as well as the illustrations and analogies used to explain them. Although the author has eschewed mathematical formulae, he freely embraces vector diagrams.

The old-fashioned graphic style could put some readers off. If as much effort had gone into the illustrations as the text, this would be a much-improved book. Despite a colour insert, the reader deserves more than low-grade paper and low-contrast photos. Having said that, the £15 price tag is reasonable.

The book makes reference to 'Star Trek', warp drive and the space elevator, but only by way of populist garnish. 'How Spacecraft Fly' is too interesting to waste space hypothesising about wormholes, and the author is committed to sharing his own fascination with as many space rookies as he can.

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, a space technology consultant and writer

The Lost World of Communism. An Oral History of Daily Life behind the Iron Curtain

By Peter Molloy
BBC Books, out now, £20.00

This fascinating book reminded me of a hotel called Sittavia on the outskirts of the East German town of Zittau. The owner, Gunter Ziemann, had recreated the atmosphere of the former German demographic republic (GDR).

A real-life manifestation of the owner's nostalgia for the communist past (or ostalgie), Sittavia was full of Communist memorabilia and samples of GDR products -from Vita Cola to Tutsi toothpaste and F6 - foul-smelling proletarian cigarettes.

Compared to the Soviet Union, the GDR was a paradise of prosperity and technological innovation, even if the letter seldom stretched farther than providing Stasi female agents with 'observation bras' and 'engineering' world-class athletes by feeding them huge doses of steroids.

In 'The Lost World of Communism', to coincide with the eponymous BBC TV series screened in the UK in March and April, Peter Molloy, the series producer, included interviews with 'talking heads' from three post-communist nations: East Germany, Romania and (the now defunct) Czechoslovakia. His aim was to assemble memories of life in "the lost world" of communism and to preserve them for posterity as a reminder that there was more about living under communism than politics.

Despite enormous pressure from the state, people still fell in love, watched TV and went to work where they occasionally manufactured some worthwhile products: from Skoda cars (in Czechoslovakia) to spaceships (in the Soviet Union).

Molloy's talking heads do not specifically dwell on technology but some facts they mention are revealing. For instance, I didn't know that paragliders were banned in East Germany to prevent people escaping across the border. A little detail that speaks volumes.

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev, features editor of E&T

PoE&Try

Our first poE&Try competition inspired a rash of versifiers keen to trap the Higgs boson particle in print, though it remains stubbornly elusive in the laboratory. Many entrants chose to focus not on the nature of the particle itself but on the more public disappointments of the recent experiments at CERN.

This eight-line effort from Cliff Blake summed up the situation with a Conan Doyleish twist:

If Sherlock Holmes were here today

I don't think he'd have chosen

To search around the cyclotron,

Looking for Higgs' boson.

He'd have spotted straight away

An elementary point,

The magnetic field distorted

Due to a faulty soldered joint.

It wins Cliff a fine array of books of quotations courtesy of the Oxford University Press (OUP).

Honourable mention should also go to Geoff Cains who took a more charitable view of events:

To engineers seeking

The elusive Higgs' boson,

Take a break for the day

And stick a Red Nose on.

Thanks go to him and all our other contributors. Now to the topic for our second contest.

If gloomy predictions about climate change prove to be correct, then 1 April 1826 may be the date of the cruellest joke played on mankind. That remarkably early date saw US authorities issue the world's first ever patent for an internal combustion engine. It was given to Samuel Morey, an American inventor who spent much of his life in New England and has a lake in Vermont named after him. (Are any UK lakes named after scientists and engineers?)

Morey is the Edison of the engine. A mill owner by trade, his first patent was granted for a steam-driven spit and signed by no lesser notaries than President George Washington and the then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. But it is patent X4,378 for a 'gas or vapor engine' that secures his places in automotive history.

Morey's engine burnt an explosive mixture of turpentine, vapour and air and had many of the recognisable elements of a modern car engine including cylinders, a carburettor, valves and noise. His design pre-dated Charles Duryea's patent for a petrol-driven engine by some 60 years, and Morey was enough of a visionary to predict that in its wake "there would be little use of horses". Sadly, his predictive powers didn't also extend to speed cameras, furry dice and bank holiday traffic.

Morey was the first American to drive a car - a wagon powered by his engine. He was also the first American to have an automobile accident when the wagon crashed into a ditch.

Despite this, E&T readers are invited to submit an original verse of up to eight-lines - or a haiku - in recognition of Morey's pioneering work on the internal combustion engine. The best entry will win another set of books from the OUP.

To get your mental engines running, here are two examples:

Suck, spark, bang, blow,

Makes the four stroke engine go.

If the spark goes on and on,

It's likely that your big end's gone.

Morey's motto was:

'In turpentine combustion,

Hope springs internal'.

Mike Barfield

Entries to vvitaliev@theiet.org

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