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Book Reviews

Planes, trains, noise and the new industrial revolution feature in this month's selection of recent books.

Oxford University Press

Discord - The story of noise

by Mike Goldsmith, £16.99, ISBN 978-0199600687

Recently I stayed in an upmarket hotel on Edinburgh's busy main shopping street. I had a very good night's sleep, snuggled up in a feathery duvet. My friend, with whom I was sharing the room, tossed and turned all night. The sound of the students rolling back from the clubs and the late night buses passing beneath our double-glazed hotel room disturbed her. I hadn't heard a thing. This wouldn't be so surprising if my friend didn't have very little hearing; she's deaf in one ear. Yet the sounds of the passing traffic had prevented her sleeping, while I was out like a log.

That's because there's a difference between sound and noise. Sound is measurable; noise isn't, as it's far more subjective. And it's this slippery notion of noise that interests Dr Mike Goldsmith, former head of the acoustics group at the UK's National Physical Laboratory.

'Discord' is a chronological history of noise, from the Ice Age to iPods. In a chatty and accessible style, Goldsmith sets out to make the mysteries of what and how we hear as clear as a bell. He conjectures that the first man-made noise was created when flint tools were being crafted. This would have seemed particularly loud, as sound was a far more prominent sense. There was greater darkness both inside and outside, so people must have relied more on their ears than their eyes. As villages were formed, dwellings were deliberately built within shouting distance.

Brief portraits of leading scientist's work on the subject of sound punctuate the book, including Sir Isaac Newton's contemporaries Robert Hooke - the first to note that frequency is related to pitch - and Robert Boyle, who discovered a ringing bell quietens if the air is removed.

But Goldsmith isn't only interested in the history of noise itself, but also the campaigns against it, which have been waged for centuries. A note was found in the ruins of Pompeii: "Macerior begs the magistrate to prevent the people from making a noise disturbing the good folks who are asleep." Noise has become an increasing complaint - for good reason. In the 19th century, steam engines began to clang and hiss through the countryside; then came motorised transport, amplifiers, telephones, radios, aeroplanes.

Interestingly, our objections to noise have little to do with the noise's strength. People have never much minded the sound of trains - known as the 'Railway Bonus' - perhaps because they're predictable and are perceived to be safe. Not even the Noise Abatement Society, founded in the 1950s and instigators of the rubber-lidded dustbin, could object.

The world is certainly shutting up. When I began as a journalist 30 years ago, newsrooms were loud with people shouting down phones and clacking on typewriters. Now we all email each other and hardly talk. Quieter technologies are being tested even where noise seems crucial. UK manufacturer Brigade Electronics has developed vehicle alarms that emit only the shush of white noise. "We now have all the technology ' we need to solve the problems of noise, so that, one day, it may exist only as our tool," says Goldsmith confidently. Now that's something to shout about.

Dea Birkett

 

Pen & Sword

The four geniuses of the Battle of Britain

by David Coles and Peter Sherrard, £19.99, ISBN 978-1-848847590

The Battle of Britain was a highlight of the Second World War from the Allies' perspective, and it has been immortalised in a library-full of books and films. It remains, for many, one of the UK's 'finest hours', but for those of us born after the war it is simply part of our history. Nevertheless, most engineers would produce a similar list when asked to name the products and technologies that helped win the warradar, the Spitfire and the Hurricane would almost certainly be among them.

This book personalises some of those wartime engineering contributions in a biographical history of four menRobert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar; Henry Royce (of Rolls-Royce fame, but also the creator of the Merlin aircraft engine); Sydney Camm, the designer of the Hurricane; and Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the man behind the Spitfire. Although the two fighter aircraft differ in design - and evoke much comparative banter even today - they were both powered by versions of the Merlin, which explains its inclusion here.

If you like your history 'potted', then this could be the book for you the lives and accomplishments of the four characters are summarised in just 140 pages, while a short (and arguably superfluous) fifth chapter discusses the "German Terror Weapons", the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 ballistic rocket. The writing style differs between the two authors Sherrard presents logical, if fairly dry, histories of his subjects (Royce and Mitchell), while Coles flies a somewhat haphazard trajectory with his more technical coverage of Watson-Watt and Camm. It's a mixture of smooth air and turbulence throughout.

To its credit, the book includes an insert of black-and-white photos and an index to aid research. That said, individual, carefully researched and properly edited volumes would do greater justice to these four wartime 'geniuses'.

Mark Williamson

 

Random House

Makers - The new Industrial Revolution

by Chris Anderson, £20.00, ISBN 978-1-847-94065-0

There are economists out there who reckon the global digital economy is worth $20tn. This may sound like a lot of money, but according to Chris Anderson in his new book 'Makers', it's less than a fifth of the economy of the 'Real World of Places and Stuff'. From this he extrapolates that "the world of atoms is at least five times larger than the world of bits". This is his argument for why a healthy manufacturing economy is more important, even if less superficially attractive than, the so-called 'weightless economy' of information. It follows that it's more crucial than ever to have sufficient 'makers' (i.e. engineers) to produce the manufactured items upon which the balance of the global economy relies.

In other words, the premise for Anderson's book - subtitled 'The New Industrial Revolution' - is that "atoms are the new bits". This is a counter-intuitive phrase he borrows from himself, having published his own article of the same name in the magazine he edits, 'Wired'. It is a hugely influential magazine, and so is Anderson. This is partly a result of his unerring ability to boil down large-scale technological issues into consumer-accessible airport lounge books. Nothing wrong with thathis first book 'The Long Tail' is a parable about niche marketing for the digital age that really did seem to matter.

There are several reasons why we should make things, says Anderson. But the main one is that if we don't, then the fabric of society falls apart. Manchester is an example of thisonce a hub of the British Empire's Industrial Revolution, its rise was meteoric and, according to Anderson, its demise was "agonizing".

As society moved from a manufacturing to a service economy, the world of 'stuff' fell into dereliction and we are still licking our wounds. The emergence of a new industrial revolution will help, but only if we harness the digital tools at our disposal and get back into the 'maker-space'. The problem of what to do after the collapse of an organised manufacturing base can be addressed by universal involvement in the digital world. The prophecy can be reversed. Once the world of shiny metal was at the mercy of the silicon chip. Now, by becoming digital makers we can reverse the decline. All it takes is a few CAD stations, 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines in our basements.

It's easy to see why Anderson's 'Makers' will be popular. The people who routinely propel his books into the New York Times bestsellers will make that so. But I found it had far less to say than 'The Long Tail', and although I tried hard to follow Anderson's reasoning, eventually I gave up because the central argument of 'Makers' isn't interesting or strong enough to sustain a full-length book.

Nick Smith

 

Atlantic Books

Giants of Steam

by Jonathan Glancey, £20, ISBN 978-1843547693

Do steam locomotives have souls? Having read the latest book by Jonathan Glancey - a well-known author, journalist, pilot, engine driver and steam enthusiast - I am left in no doubt that they do!

'Giants of Steam' is simultaneously a history, a drama and a wonderfully uplifting paean to the power of steam, about which Samuel Laying, a 19th-century author and traveller once wrote"The power of steam is not confined to material objects. Its influences extend over the social and moral arrangements of mankind. Steam is the great democratic power of our age, annihilating the conventional distinctions, differences and social distance between man and man, as well as natural distances between place and place."

This was written in... wait for it... 1850! But Glancey, I am sure, would be happy to repeat Laying's statement now. "We live in the age of steam," he states unequivocally in his book published 162 years later.

Indeed, for true enthusiasts the age of steam never ends. With flair, knowledge and gusto Glancey surveys the evolution of locomotives and railways in the UK, Germany, France, the USA and other parts of the world, among which I was pleased to find Russia and the Soviet Union.

In particular, I was taken by the story of Lazar Kaganovich, a one-time Stalin henchman and the USSR's transportation and heavy industry commissar. He was also a steam enthusiast who had a steam locomotive was named after him. In the early 1950s, Kaganovich came up with a five-year plan to build 6,000 steam locomotives in the Soviet Union, but was soon ousted by Khrushchev who scrapped the plan in 1957.

The demise of Kaganovich (who died in Moscow in 1991 at the venerable age of 98) and his policies thus heralded the end of steam power and the forced introduction of diesel engines all over the former USSR. Despite the fact that Kaganovich supported and encouraged the development of some of the world's most interesting locomotives, including those designed by the Soviet Union's finest railway engineer Lev Lebedyansky, in Glancey's words, "not even the most fervent steam enthusiast should ever honour the memory of Kaganovich, this ardent Stalinist directly responsible for the politically motivated deaths of millions..."

The story of steam and locomotives themselves come alive in this inspiring and educational book. If you are not a steam enthusiast yet, I guarantee you'll become one after reading it.

Vitali Vitaliev

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