The dark side of the Web, man-made wonders and a London landmark in this month's new technology-related titles.
By Mark Miodownik, £18.99, ISBN 9780670920549
A straw poll of history's greatest inventions is likely to come up with some great examples of innovation across most spheres of engineering, from the internal combustion engine to the lightbulb. The discoveries that are less likely to make the list, however, are the more fundamental breakthroughs in the materials that made many of those devices possible in the first place.
In 'Stuff Matters', Mark Miodownik sets out to redress the balance by explaining the science behind some of the materials that are so familiar we barely notice them. Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Apparently naïve questions, but ones that if a child posed them to us we'd probably have to think carefully about before answering.
In his academic role as Professor of Materials and Society at UCL, Miodownik is director of the University's Institute of Making, home to a library of some of the strangest materials on Earth. He'll be better known to TV viewers, however, as the face of several engaging documentaries, resident boffin on Dara O'Briain's 'Science Club', and presenter of the 2012 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.
He's just been named as the winner of this year's Royal Academy of Engineering Rooke Medal in recognition of his efforts to raise the public profile of engineering. Ranging from chocolate to silicon chips and packed with personal anecdotes that make some serious science more digestible, 'Stuff Matters' continues this excellent work.
In fact, the section that takes a closer look at the qualities of a handful of sand is one where your summer beach reading can turn into a practical lesson in materials science.
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
By Tim Parks, £16.99, ISBN 978-0393239324
For me, this book is a special treat, because it combines under one cover my three long-time passions: for Italy, for trains, and for the writings of Tim Parks, whom I regard as one of the best living authors in the English language. And just like his previous book, 'Teach Us to Sit Still', 'Italian Ways' is rather hard to categorise. As Parks himself notes, it is "not a history book, nor exactly a travel book, though there is travel and history in it". To my mind, its peculiar "genre" is best expressed in the dedication – "For all those who love to read on trains", where "on trains" can mean both reading on board a train and reading ABOUT trains (at least this is how I see it).
Italian railways is a fascinating subject. I criss-crossed Italy by train many times, feeling fascinated and irritated. Fascinated by the trains' distinctively un-Italian punctuality, traffic efficiency and rolling-stock cleanliness (way ahead of the UK); irritated by the extremely complicated and super-bureaucratic rituals of buying a correct ticket and having it properly validated and stamped.
Reading 'Italian Ways', I was fiendishly pleased to discover that Parks, himself a hardened Trenitalia commuter (he travels every day between Verona, where he lives, to Milan, where he teaches Translation at the university) is also suffering from the ticket (a "supplement", or an even more mysterious "documento di viaggio") validation phobia. Like the Italian psyche itself, Trenitalia embodies all those – and many other – controversial and seemingly mutually exclusive traits.
Yes, indeed, as Parks remarks, the whole history of Italy could be reconstructed through an account of the country's railways: from the sheer clumsiness of the first ever train from Naples to Portici in 1839 to signal the approach of the Industrial Revolution, to the enormously confusing rules of the railways ownership and operation of the Berlusconi epoch, whereby Rete Ferroviara Italiana (Italian Railway Network) runs "the lines and smaller stations", while another operator, Grandi Stazioni, is in charge of the bigger stations, and Trentitalia runs the trains themselves.
But the main subject of this truly extraordinary book, to my mind, is the all-permeating romanticism, and even poetry, of the Italian trains. It is a diary of a commuter and a traveller (the book includes Parks' journey to and around Sicily), who grumbles occasionally, yes, but is still deeply in love with Italian railways and their passengers.
Almost imperceptibly, the pages open up, like doors of train compartments, to reveal an array of characters – from a pale bespectacled young man immersed in 'The Confessions of St Augustine' and not uttering a word during the whole journey, to a loquacious woman complaining playfully that her husband never picks her up at the station. It was probably that very openness and romanticism, alongside beautiful views from train windows that, according to Parks, prompted Mark Twain to remark (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek perhaps) that he admired Italians not so much for their art and antiques but for their trains. Despite some inevitable irritations of train travel, the author of 'Italian Ways' is in full agreement with Twain. And so is this reviewer.
Paddington Station: Its History and Architecture (2nd Edition)
By Steven Brindle, £25, ISBN 9781848010894
Paddington station is perhaps best known as the splendid London terminus of Brunel's Great Western Railway, distinguished by its wide roof spans and the tracery of its glazed end screens.
English Heritage Publishing has just issued an updated edition of Stephen Brindle's comprehensive guide to Paddington's history and architecture. Beginning with a chapter on Brunel and the GWR, this lavishly illustrated large-format paperback puts the whole story of the station into a wider industry and social context.
Paddington station might never have existed if the GWR directors' original plan to share the London & Birmingham Railway's Euston terminus had not fallen through. It was only then that a site was selected next to the Paddington Basin of the Grand Junction Canal, where a 'temporary' station was built in time for the start of services between London and Maidenhead in 1838. As additions and alterations failed to keep up with demand, the present station was built, opening in 1854.
Sitting as it does in a cutting, Brunel's grand structure was conceived as an interior – at the time it was probably the largest single-roofed space in London. But a railway station is far more than just a building. The author takes us through the life of Paddington during times of peace and war, expansion and decline, and also looks to the future as the Crossrail development moves forward.
During his research for the book, which was first published in 2004, Brindle discovered that a bridge spanning the Regent's Canal just outside the station was in fact Brunel's earliest surviving cast-iron bridge and the last significant remainder of the 1838 station.
This second edition includes an account of how the Bishops Road canal bridge sank from notice, hidden behind brick parapets in 1907 so that it was only visible to canal users. Its serendipitous identification came just as it was due to be demolished for road improvements. As a result, the structure was carefully dismantled and will eventually provide a new canal crossing in west London.