Still looking for a gift for the engineer in your life? New books on travel, language, beer and history all have an element of technology.
'Great Railway Maps Of The World'
by Mark Ovenden £20, ISBN 978-1846143915
I was thrilled during a recent visit to Istanbul to have found the Orient Express Terminal, still full of the decadence, grandeur and romance of early 20th century railway travel. Displayed inside the posh (yet empty) Belle Epoque-style restaurant, was a collection of beautiful old Orient Express posters. I couldn't resist buying a couple, and they now bring a little class to the walls of my 21st century office.
I was both surprised and delighted to see those very same posters reproduced in 'Great Railway Maps of the World', Mark Ovenden's spectacular book, alongside some colourful route maps of the world's most famous passenger train. True, this is more than just a collection of reproduced maps. It is a fascinating foray into the history of world railways, a picture gallery and a succession of emotional travel stories, powered by passion, knowledge and nostalgia.
What's the attraction of old railway maps and posters? It is really hard to explain their magic to anyone who is not a train buff. Luckily, as far as I know, many E&T readers are! Among the pearls of my own collection of old books and maps, there's a beautifully preserved 'Guide to Turkestan and Central Asian Railway' published in Russian in St Petersburg in 1903. A portrait of young Emperor Nicholas II, 'Tsar of All the Russias', is on the insert. Another insert is a detailed folding map of Central Asian Railway - in full colour, next to tips for a traveller in Turkestan ('10. Don't drink raw water').
For me, leafing through this guide is like setting out on a train journey not only through space, but also through time. Whereas Mark Ovenden's book is a compilation of hundreds of such time journeys. With its help, I had another trans-Australian train ride and rattled along the world's longest stretch of straight railway line (478km) on board the Indian-Pacific Express ' an experience I described in my After All column in the November 2011 issue of E&T.
I relived my fairly frequent travels on the Trans-Siberian Railway, along the route of the world's longest continuous rail passenger journey - not from Moscow to Vladivostok, as many would think, but, as Ovenden rightly points out, from Kiev to Vladivostok (11,085km).
'Great Railway Maps' is therefore an ideal Christmas gift for both a hardened train buff and for a tyro vicarious traveller, whom it is bound to turn into the former. I am only too happy to repeat here the words of my good acquaintance, former New York Times food critic William 'Biff' Grimes: 'Ovenden does what no other design history book has ever done' - and to add my name to them too.
Oxford University Press
'The Oxford Companion To Beer'
By Garrett Oliver (Ed), £35, ISBN 978-0195367133
Beer could fairly well be regarded as the drink of engineering, or at least of industry. It was beer that slaked the thirst of workers swept up by the Industrial Revolution, and brewers took advantage of the huge technological leaps it brought in their quest for higher production at lower cost.
For anyone interested in the history, technology, chemistry and biology of beer and brewing, the 'Oxford Companion to Beer' is a useful reference, and a source of serendipitous pleasure. Without it, I might never have known that the first steam engine in Bavaria was part-funded by the Spaten Brewery in 1821, and that Spaten in 1873 'commissioned the first ever continually operational refrigeration system'.
If that's not enough, who knew that Anheuser Busch froze cans of Bud in liquid nitrogen so they could be tasted years later to ensure the flavour profile (no, don't laugh) doesn't drift over time? Or that Pharoah Rameses II had a large brewing industry to supply the workforce building his temples at Abu Simbel, Luxor and elsewhere?
Be warned though that this is not properly authoritative: it perpetuates a number of historical myths, and a lack of peer-review seems to have let inaccuracies and contradictions creep in. For instance, the 'bottles' entry - whose US writers have presumably not visited a UK supermarket recently - informs us that 'In the UK, the imperial pint remains a popular size', while the following entry on 'bottle sizes' - written by a Brit - correctly says that most British brewers have changed to 500ml bottles.
Incidentally, although this is the 'Oxford Companion to Beer', it is a project of the OUP's US office, which explains the US-centric nature of much of the text. Then again, the US has taken much of the lead in brewing innovation in recent decades.
Hopefully most of the errors will be fixed in the second edition. In the meantime, beer historians (many of them 'OCB' contributors) are wrangling over the details, and there is even a website dedicated to collecting corrections.
'Planet Word: the story of language from the earliest grunts to Twitter and beyond'
By JP Davidson, with a foreword by Stephen Fry, £25, ISBN 978-0718157746
A recent cartoon in Spectator magazine featured a customer in a bookshop asking a sales assistant: 'Can I have a book without a foreword by Stephen Fry?'.
True, Fry, the UK's versatile and prolific 'national treasure', has endorsed countless books over the years - a fact that at times somewhat diminishes the significance of such an endorsement. Yet, in JP Davidson's 'Planet Word', a passionate call to 'celebrate' the language in Fry's intelligent and highly poetic introduction sounds more than appropriate, for the book itself is indeed but a 445-page long, richly illustrated celebration of the written and spoken word - both passionate and scholarly.
Davidson explores language in all its magnificent manifestations: from idioms and highly obscure tongues, spoken by just a handful of people, to dialects, slang ('argo'), regional accents and etymology - this fascinating (at least to a linguist like myself) mixture of history, literature and legend.
As a telling (in the true sense of this word) example of the latter, Davidson examines the origins of the word 'kangaroo', commonly associated with an anecdote about Captain Cook asking an Aborigine for the name of that 'strange animal' and hearing 'gangurru' in response. The widespread myth is that it meant 'I don't know' whereas in fact the local was simply 'describing a particular species of kangaroo'.
And, whereas this particular misconception is a rather well-known 'QI' forfeit, the true origin of another Aussie slang word 'Pom' or 'Pommie' to describe the English was a revelation to me. Like many, I used to think that it was a 'Prisoners of His Majesty' acronym, whereas Davidson, referring to DH Lawrence, asserts that 'Pommie' is just a shortened word for 'pomegranate' rhyming (somewhat loosely, it must be admitted) with 'immigrant'!
'Furthermore, immigrants [to Australia] are known in their first months, before their blood 'thins down', by their round and runny cheeks.' A truly amazing linguistic discovery!
I also enjoyed the pages on Esperanto and its founder Ludowic Zamenhof, but was slightly disappointed by Davidson not mentioning Amikeijo ('Place of Friendship') ' a short-lived and little-known early 20th century 'Esperanto Free State' on the German- Belgian border near Aachen.
On the whole though, 'Planet Word' is a terrific read and a superb Christmas present, particularly for those who did not see the accompanying BBC TV series. E&T readers will doubtless be specifically interested in the book's closing pages discussing the linguistic impact of Twitter, texting and social network sites.
'Will all this new technology change what we want to say?' asks Davidson in the book's final paragraph and himself answers - rather aphoristically: '... the medium is not the message. The Message is the message.'
'A History Of The World In 100 Objects'
By Neil Macgregor, £20, ISBN 978-1-846-14511-7
One of the real highlights of Radio 4 programming in recent years has been its stupendous series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'. A parallel project was the production of the accompanying book by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and this new edition is a splendid reminder of just how good cross-media publishing events can be in the right hands, with the right subject matter.
Of course, no history of the world can exist without the inclusion of landmark achievements in mathematics, manufacturing and materials. Those hoping to see technology-related artefacts will be pleased to find engineering generously represented. From early coins to credit cards, astrolabes to chronometers, mathematical papyruses to solar powered lamps, it's all here.
The idea that you could tell the history of civilisation (the title of the book is quite misleading) in 100 objects falls neatly between intellectual challenge and attractive marketing ploy. It also invites statisticians to attempt to calculate a technology related percentage. Although it's sometimes hard to decide whether an object's value lies in the technology behind it or what its purpose may be, by my calculation, at least 40 per cent of the objects in this book came into being because of the creative genius of E&T magazine readers, or their predecessors.
For every moment of art there is an innovation in instrumentation; for every icon of spiritual value there is a scale model or a tool, while for every commemorative trinket, there is a manufactured object. In other words, Neil MacGregor has understood perfectly the role that technology has played in shaping the way we live today, and his 'History of the World' will make a fascinating Christmas present for those who want to go back to the roots of their profession.
Also out this month...
Kitty Ferguson first got to know Stephen Hawking and his family when she lived in Cambridge in the late 1980s. Shortly after, when she retired from her career as a professional singer and conductor to write about science and scientists, one of her first books was the bestselling ‘Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything’. New she has transformed that short book into a hugely expanded biography. For ‘Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work’ (Bantam, £20, ISBN 978-0593068632) Ferguson has had special help from Hawking himself and his close associates. The result is a rich picture of Hawking's childhood, the heartrending beginning of his struggle with motor neurone disease when he was a first-year graduate student, his ever-increasing international fame, and his long personal battle for survival in pursuit of a scientific understanding of the universe. Throughout she also summarises and explains to the layman the cutting-edge science in which Hawking has been engaged.
‘World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement’ by Robert P Crease (WW Norton & Co, £18.99, ISBN 978-0393072983) is the epic story of the invention of a global network of weights, scales and instruments. The dynamic struggle for ultimate precision proves to have been both stranger and more integral to our lives than we ever suspected. Crease, who chairs the Philosophy Department at Stony Brook University, traces a story that runs from the use of flutes to measure distance in the dynasties of ancient China and figurines to weigh gold in West Africa, to the creation of the French metric and British imperial systems.
There are plenty of good reasons for riding an electric bike - effortless pedalling up hills, no-sweat commuting and greater acceleration that means greater safety. Battery range is increasing too, with some models achieving upwards of 70km. David Henshaw has edited and published A to B magazine, specialising in folding and electric bikes, since 1997, while Richard Peace is founder of Excellent Books, specialising in cycle publishing, and has been writing about cycling for more than 15 years. Together, they’ve collaborated on 'Electric Bicycles: The Complete Guide' (Excellent Books, £12.95, ISBN 978-1-901464-24-5) a comprehensive book that covers all aspects of this rapidly growing form of transport and leisure riding, with chapters on history and development, classic models, choosing and using and much more.
Solar energy is an attractive proposition - free, abundant and sustainable with many methods existing to harness it. In ‘Solar Technology’ (Earthscan, £34.99, ISBN 978-1849711098), David Thorpe of Energy and Environmental Management magazine provides the perfect primer for anyone who wants to work with or simply learn more about solar technologies. This introduction to the subject, illustrated in full colour, explains how the technologies work, how best they should be employed and the costs and benefits. As well as detailed coverage of the essential issues - passive solar building, solar water heating, solar space heating, other solar thermal applications such as cooling and desalination, grid-connected photovoltaics and stand-alone photovoltaics – there is also coverage of larger-scale applications such as concentrating solar power.
The benefits of living in a digital, globalised society may be enormous, but so too are the dangers. Have the organisations that keep us safe on the streets learned to protect us in a world where we bank, shop, learn, work and live online? And to what extent have we become complacent about our own personal security? In ‘Dark Market’ (Bodley Head, £20, ISBN 978-1847921260), Misha Glenny explores what he believes are the three fundamental threats facing us in the 21st century: cyber crime, cyber warfare and cyber industrial espionage. Governments and the private sector are losing billions of dollars each year, fighting an ever-morphing, often invisible, often super-smart new breed of criminal: the hacker.
Tony Stark has been battling bad guys and protecting innocent civilians since he first donned his mechanised armor in the 1963 debut of Iron Man in Marvel Comics. Over the years, Stark's suit has allowed him to smash through walls, fly through the air like a human jet, and control a bewildering array of weaponry. Now E. Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia has physically deconstructed Iron Man to find out how we could use modern-day technology to create a suit of armour similar to the one Stark made. ‘Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine’ (Johns Hopkins University Press, £13, ISBN 978-1421402260) is a scientifically sound look at brain-machine interfaces and the outer limits where neuroscience and neural plasticity meet. Zehr, who has already done the same task for another super hero in his earlier ‘Becoming Batman’, finds that science is nearing the point where a suit like Iron Man's could be made. But superherodom is not just about technology. Zehr also discusses our own physical limitations and asks whether an extremely well-conditioned person could use Iron Man's armour and do what he does.
Ryder Wyndham is the author of more than 50 Star Wars books and in the latest addition to Haynes’ series of Owners’ Workshop Manuals he turns his attention to the Millennium Falcon (Haynes, £14.99, ISBN 978-0857330963), the iconic spaceship piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca in the original trilogy of Star Wars films. Using brand-new, full-colour cutaways, together with other art and photographs, this manual provides the most thorough technical description of the Millennium Falcon available, making it essential reading for all Star Wars fans.
In the real world, meanwhile, Haynes has also added a Routemaster Bus Enthusiasts’ Manual (Haynes, £21.99, ISBN 978-1844259380) to its range, looking at all aspects of the classic red double-decker London Transport bus. Andrew Morgan, chairman of the Routemaster Operators and Owners Association and Routemaster owner, provides a unique perspective on owning, restoring and operating a Routemaster, as well as an insight into the design, development and anatomy of this remarkably resilient machine, which saw continuous service in London for over 45 years.