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TECH TALK: Good Books: Why Things Break

January 14th, 2004 · No Comments

Things break all the time. I havent worried much about breaking things so far in life, though there are times when it has a direct impact. The bag which comes apart at the wrong time, the cassette/CD case which rarely seems to last for too long, the toys which break all too quickly, the glass which develops cracks, the spectacles frame that seems to give way all of a sudden, software programs which crash these are all breakages which have passed by my life. So, my attention was grabbed by the book entitled Why Things Break with the byline Understanding the world by the way it comes apart.

The author is Mark Eberhart, who received his doctorate from MIT in materials science, and is now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. From the book introduction: In [the book], Eberhart leads us on a remarkable and entertaining exploration of all the cracks, clefts, fissures, and faults examined in the field of materials science and the many astonishing discoveries that have been made about everything from the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger to the crashing of your hard drive. Understanding why things break is crucial to modern life on every level, from personal safety to macroeconomics, but as Eberhart reveals here, it is also an area of cutting-edge science that is as provocative as it is illuminating.

The book deals primarily with materials science. It is a topic I know we will have to look at closely as we build out our pilot RISC (Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons) centre in rural India. We have often discussed on the need to focus on creating a breakthrough design we can afford to do so because we are starting from scratch. We want to not only build a centre which is aesthetically good-looking, but one which can weather the wear and tear that the elements and usage will bring forth. So, the right choice of materials is going to be important. Ensuring that things dont break will be even more critical as we seek to do a design which we can roll out across the rural areas in India and then the rest of the world.

The book gives a framework to think about materials. As the author writes:

The fun becomes when I say, I study why things break, not when.

It is a common misunderstanding, confusing when with why. What people really understand is when things break. Fracture, as with almost every other phenomenon, is composed of two parts, cause and effect. The question of when deals with the cause, while that of why deals with the effect. An engineer can control the phenomenon with an answer to either question. For example, knowing that a drinking glass will break when it is dropped, an engineer could carpet the floor and avoid a cause of the fracture. Similarly, the engineer can change why the glass breaks by changing the material from which it is made. A tin cup will not break when dropped.

What intrigues me is that so much of mankinds development in history, art, science and economy is intimately intertwined with the fact that some things break while others bend. Despite the fact that throughout history we have worked to develop a nearly complete answer to the question of when things break and bend, we have only the most rudimentary understanding of why they do so.

The book is an interesting tour through the world of materials that shape our lives. Read it, ponder the effect on the breakages that affect our lives and think about what can be done to solve the problems.

Tomorrow: The Gifts of Athena


TECH TALK Good Books+T

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