Ground crew directing planes

Book reviews

This month we look at titles that highlight innovation in wartime, medicine, structural engineering and life itself.

Oxford University Press

The Long Road to Stockholm: The story of MRI

By Peter Mansfield, £25, ISBN 978-0-19-966454-2

This book has two subtitles. First is 'The Story of MRI', while second is 'An Autobiography'. You don't have to read far into his story to realise that magnetic resonance imaging and the man so closely involved with its development are intimately intertwined. His life and work would eventually take him to Sweden to receive the Nobel for his discoveries in the field of MRI, an award he shared with Paul Lauterbur.

Mansfield's autobiography supplies rich and meticulous detail about the Nobel process, from the first telephone call ("pull the other leg, it's got bells on it"), to the post-award dinner, when he sat between two members of the Swedish royal family. He doesn't tell us much about his reaction to the honour, other than to mention in passing a "dazed state of euphoria" on first hearing of it. His modesty is of a bygone age, but there are times when you feel there is so much more we could learn from the man behind the physicist.

Baroness Kennedy calls Mansfield's story "incredible and inspirational". She's right. The son of a gas fitter, he left school at the age of 15 with a disrupted education caused by repeated evacuations during the Second World War. But his brilliance in the field of NMR spectrometry would lead him via a circuitous route to his PhD: the first step on the road that was to take in the influence of Charles Schlichter of the University of Illinois and the eventual production of images of the human body using MRI.

A recurrent theme in Mansfield's book is his stock response to requests from reporters to comment on his work, the petty jealousies and rivalries that occasionally rear their head and embarrass him, and of course the sequence of events that led to the Nobel Prize. He declines with metronomic regularity, and on one occasion in 1993, even went as far as to think talking with an American reporter would damage the case for MRI's association with the Nobel system.

This quiet, self-effacing and sometimes defensive attitude is reassuringly old-fashioned and central to the psyche of a man dedicated to the advancement of science rather than reward. We should be glad that the now elderly Mansfield has slightly relinquished his grip on expressing personal views in the form of 'The Long Road to Stockholm', because it is in so many ways a remarkable book.

Nick Smith


Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to biotech's brave new beasts

By Emily Anthes, £11.99, ISBN 978-1-78074-216-8

In 2009 German researchers changed the 'squeak' of some mice by giving them a human gene that plays a role in our speech. Not only did the engineered mice sound different, the shape and size of their neurons changed too. And yet as Emily Anthes explains in her book 'Frankenstein's Cat', humans have a long history of refashioning animals' bodies. Domestic dogs are the result of millennia of life with humans, as are docile sheep with wool soft enough to be made into nice jumpers.

What's changed is how fast we can make those alterations and the extent of them. Today 45,000 mouse cages at Shanghai's Fudan University are home to rodent oddities being bred assembly-line style: mice with male-pattern baldness, mice that endlessly bury marbles, mice that only make left turns and so on. Elsewhere in the world, scientists are taking advantage of the miniaturisation of electronics to merge animals and machines. Some are wiring up flying beetles to make remote-controlled 'cybugs'. Others are wirelessly controlling implants in the brains of living rats.

This book is not a gee-whizz gasp at technology but a balanced exploration of animal engineering today and the range of ethical and moral questions it raises. Genes from different species already mingle in the natural world from lions and tigers that mate to species of bacteria that transfer novel genes into insects, worms and other animals. So what makes a species in the first place? How many human capabilities would we need to add for an animal to become self-aware? And why do clones sometimes behave differently from their source?

Any general reader interested in such questions will appreciate this well-researched, intelligent and concise account, even if they do not always enjoy Anthes' sometimes overly folksy style.

Christine Evans-Pughe

Princeton University Press

Wind Wizard: Alan G Davenport and the art of wind engineering

By Siobhan Roberts, £19.95, ISBN 978-0-691-15153-3

When the interaction of wind and structural design isn't taken properly into account, the results can be catastrophic. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was in 1940, when the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge was literally blown away by a modest 39mph wind that caused terminal aeroelastic flutter. It was this event that ushered in an era of bridge aerodynamics, and the 'Wind Wizard' was to be its main player.

Long bridges and tall buildings occupy the central chapters of Siobhan Roberts' biography of Alan G Davenport, whose life's work was to understand the impact of air movement on the built environment. The title of Davenport's doctoral thesis – 'The treatment of wind loads on tall towers and long-span bridges in the turbulent wind' – describes precisely the focus of a successful career in which he became the undisputed expert in the field.

As with so many engineers of real genius, Davenport was an enigmatic man. He would fit his briefcase (or 'nerd box') with orange flags to vaguely warn people. He once painted a television set orange as a warning too. According to his biographer, he never laughed and yet had a wicked sense of humour. More than anything he loved bridges, his particular interest being in those of the suspension variety: he became an expert on why Tacoma failed.

But his highest profile work was in tall buildings. When a young Davenport was asked to assist with the highly secret design of a pair of 'twin towers' that were to be the tallest buildings in the world, "it was the shock of my life". Under his watchful eye, the World Trade Centre in New York was eventually built to tolerate wind deflection of 10-14 inches in 80mph winds with an oscillation period of 11 seconds. The authorities never received any complaints about motion, which led the designers to wonder if their final design had been too conservative. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the dampers in the buildings were credited with mitigating the impact of the aeroplanes, "preserving the integrity of stairwells and emergency exits and saving lives". The World Trade Center withstood all kinds of wind uncertainties, but was unable to withstand al-Qaida.

While working on the World Trade Center, Davenport was suspected of taking a bomb onto a commercial jet. The package he had with him was in fact a delicate model of the twin towers. Deeply offended, the incident led him to explore his dream of creating a wind tunnel of his own where he could work undisturbed. In November 1965 his now famous Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory was opened and before long was attracting "as much research as it could handle".

The rest isn't just history. Roberts' 'Wind Wizard' is a tenaciously gripping and extraordinarily well-told tale of one of the great figures in structural engineering.

Nick Smith

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