Holy cow, ‘Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down’ by J. E. Gordon was fantastic. It started out as a good read, but the ending took it to a whole new level. That rarely happens, especially for a piece of non-fiction. It was an unexpected delight. Alright alright, I’ll ease up on the fawning. Let’s back this truck up and unpack it a little.
If you enjoy making stuff - clothes, furniture, sculpture or houses or whatever - chances are you will learn something useful from this book. The little snippets of mathematics are well explained and accessible. Plus the whole book is chock full of analogies and stories which help to anchor the theoretical elements into reality.
Gordon starts out introducing some key concepts, like making a clear distinction of the difference between stress and strain:
(Stress) is a measure of how hard the atoms and molecules which make up the material are being pushed together or pulled apart as a result of external forces.
… Just as stress tells us how hard - that is, with how much force - the atoms at any point in a solid are being pulled apart, so strain tells us how far they are being pulled apart - that is, by what proportion the bonds between the atoms are stretched.
All the while Gordon is teaching you this stuff, he is dropping in funny little comments that keep you engaged with the subject matter. Stuff like:
Nature seems to be a pragmatic rather than mathematical designer; and, after all, bad designs can always be eaten by good ones.
That quote reminds me, Gordon not only talks about engineered materials, buildings, bridges and ballistas but spends considerable time talking about materials and structures in nature. Plants, tendons and arteries all get covered and analogies are drawn between the equivalents that are engineered by humans.
I found the content on material resilience, safety factors and fracture energy to be some of the most helpful. It really helped me wrap my head around what is happening in the finite element analysis tools that are becoming increasingly available to the layperson in software like Autodesk Fusion 360.
Then Gordon pulls back, reflects again on nature and suggests ways things could be further improved.
A quite different approach to the whole concept of ‘efficiency’ will be needed. Nature seems to look at these problems in terms of her ‘metabolic investment’, and we may have to do something of the same kind.
In many ways Gordon managed to predict the emergence of ‘generative design’ decades before it popped up in our CAD tooling (this book was first published in 1981).
Gordon ploughs ahead covering shear, torsion and a whole host of his own experiences over a lifetime of engineering work. In many ways this book reads like you are hanging out in a workshop with an old timer. You know the sort - the one who has seen things, and knows stuff. You can’t help but shut up and listen because the guy is bloody hilarious and has more than enough time and patience for those who are keen to learn.
But the real gem? As I mentioned at the start, it was the ending. The chapter on efficiency and aesthetics. It is almost like that quote out of Spiderman, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’
In the final chapter on efficiency and aesthetics, it is like Gordon grabs you by the scruff of the neck and whispers his main message: Listen here, the stuff I am trying teach you is important. In many cases it is life and death, but it isn’t everything. The relentless pursuit of efficiency and profits will leave you with a horrendous built environment that will hide all kinds of negative costs. You need to find other value systems, the beautiful ones that you hide inside and impart those on what you create.
I could quote the whole chapter, but I’m just going to go with this section:
Recently, I was drinking canned beer with a much respected colleague. I said - rather unwisely and priggishly, I suppose - ‘Really a thing like this beer-can seems to me to epitomize all the dreariness and commercialism that is wrong with technology nowadays.’ My much respected colleague was down on me like a ton of bricks. ‘I suppose you want to sell beer in pitchers or wooden barrels or wine-skins or something. What else would you sell beer in in this day and age except tin cans? How stupid and impractical and reactionary can you be?’
But, with respect, my much respected colleague was missing the whole point. It is not what you do but how you do it that matters. Beer containers are not beautiful or ugly because of the material from which they are made, or even because they are mass-produced. Whatever they are made out of they will convey, unavoidably, the values of the people who are responsible for them. We happen to be a society which is unable to make attractive beer-cans. Indeed we are, I fear, an age rather noticeably lacking in inherent grace and charm.
Greek amphoarae were beautiful, not because they held wine and were made of clay, but because the Greeks made them. They were, in their day, simply the cheapest containers for wine. If the Greeks had made tin beer-cans perhaps we should now have collections of classical beer-cans in museums, much admired by artists.
I thought it was a great opinion and an impressive way to conclude a life of learning. I give ‘Structures or Why Things Don’t Fall Down’ by J. E. Gordon five out of five stars.
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