The Frackers book cover and protestors

Book reviews

From fracking to commercial spaceflight, it’s all covered in this month’s round-up of engineering books.

Penguin Happy

City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

By Charles Montgomery, £16.99, ISBN 978-1846143205

Can we design happiness into the fabric of our cities? Charles Montgomery thinks so - and wants to start a pedal-powered revolution. Why, he asks, does just one American commuter in a hundred ride a bicycle to work, while the proportion of cyclists in Copenhagen is 55 per cent?

From his native Vancouver to Hong Kong, Paris, Atlanta, Manhattan and Bogota, Montgomery has spent time with mayors, psychologists, economists and urbanists. But for all the expert views it’s those who demand a better life for their children who make the biggest impact: the mother who broke the law so her son could cycle to school; the man who made a teahouse and a village square for local kids at a busy Portland road intersection in defiance of the Bureau of Buildings.

Sprawl is Montgomery’s enemy, notably the American “surburban savannahs” that chew up vast tracts of land, demand unsustainable levels of servicing and compel residents to spend hours commuting in gas-thirsty cars. Montgomery demands that we “confront the privilege of private cars”.

Higher-density urban centres, more intelligent zoning laws, “sprawl repair” and high-status public transport systems; these are the fixes he commends. To be green and smart, and to retrofit more complexity into our cities, Montgomery says, will save us money and make us healthier.

Nick Ewbank


Harvard University Press

Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy

By Jenifer Van Vleck, £33.95, ISBN 978-0-674-05094-5

America’s love affair with aviation set the nation on a course towards “a new type of empire [emphasising] access to markets rather than the conquest of territory”. Thus aircraft development offered a vector for projecting the nation’s power and influence across the globe - so much so, says the author, that the federal government and the aviation industry joined forces to “sell the very idea of the ‘American Century’ to the public at home and abroad”.

That’s quite a responsibility to lay on the humble aircraft, but conclusions are not formed lightly here: no less than 49 pages comprise reference notes. Van Vleck’s style is engaging, as shown by her introduction of a key protagonist, Pan American Airways president Juan Trippe: “ his spacious office high atop Manhattan’s Chanin Building…”, she flourishes (I almost expected a superhero!).

Founded in 1927, Pan Am came to typify the American Century, with its globe-like logo and ‘jet-set’ lifestyle advertising...while sci-fi fans remember it for the Orion space shuttle in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Although the 22-page photo section fails to reference this, it does include images of air travel from when the world was in black-and-white.

Although the book is premised on the commercialisation of US air power and all that it did to boost the nation, it makes clear that “the jet age also registered the American Century’s limits, contradictions, challenges and unintended consequences”. Its conclusion is titled ‘Empires rise and empires fall’. For the few who lived the jet-set dream, and those who wish they had, it is a fascinating read.

Mark Williamson


MIT Press

From X-Rays to DNA: How Engineering Drives Biology

By W David Lee with Jeffrey Drazen, Phillip A Sharp and Robert S Langer, ISBN 978 0 262 01977 4

When lasers became operational in the early 1960s, they were initially regarded as useless. Colleagues of Charles Townes, one of the inventors at Bell Laboratories, used to tease him: “That’s a great idea, but it’s a solution looking for a problem.”

The converse scenario - more typically a scientific discovery requires three or four decades to produce a commercially viable technology - is exemplified by X-ray diffraction. The phenomenon was discovered in 1912 by Max von Laue, but its wider application had to await the late 1940s, when Norelco developed the first commercial X-ray diffractometer. This enabled Rosalind Franklin to take the famous X-ray photograph that proved crucial to understanding DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953.

‘From X-Rays to DNA’ has a connection to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an impressive line-up of authors. W David Lee, CEO of Lumicell Diagnostics Inc, holds an appointment at MIT’s institute for cancer research, as do Robert Langer and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp. Jeffrey Drazen is editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, but considers himself an engineer.

Through analysing a range of examples from physics, molecular biology and beyond, Lee argues: “By more effectively integrating engineering and biology ... we can eliminate the ‘commercially viable’ hurdle” - and dramatically speed up discoveries. The book makes a thought-provoking case, but is somewhat weakened by failing to consider the reasons behind the integration of science and engineering at Bell Laboratories in its heyday, not to mention insufficient editing.

Andrew Robinson



SpaceX: Making Commercial Spaceflight a Reality

By Erik Seedhouse, £19.95, ISBN 978-1-4614-5513-4

Elon Musk personifies the ‘serial entrepreneur’, best-known for PayPal and Tesla Motors, but likely to make a longer-lasting impression with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). He was also the inspiration for the Tony Stark character in ‘Iron Man’, a factoid reflected in the title of this book’s first chapter - ‘Elon Musk: the space industry’s Tony Stark’.

The important story is the rise of SpaceX as the first private company to develop a space launch vehicle and use it to deliver a cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Although there is a fine line between a company such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin developing a space system under standard ‘cost-plus’ Nasa contracts and SpaceX doing so through a government-sponsored Space Act Agreement (SAA), the difference is significant. The main bureaucratic distinction is that, rather than reimbursing costs and guaranteeing a profit, an SAA contract pays when milestones are met.

Developments at SpaceX have two main paths, covered in some detail: the first is the extension of the Dragon concept as an ISS crew delivery vehicle; the second is the development of the Falcon 9 Heavy, a rocket capable of delivering commercial satellites to geostationary orbit. This is the “reality” of commercial spaceflight.

Illustrated in monochrome and colour, it provides a fascinating and readable overview of Elon Musk’s space achievements and where SpaceX stands among its competitors. The overall package will come as an eye-opener to most readers, especially Musk’s continual assertion that mankind’s only hope of survival is to become a “multi-planet species”.

Mark Williamson

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