Why you can't push a piece of string
Newest in the Eyewitness Science series, Medicine offers a thorough and interesting introduction to healing in its different forms. Earlier chapters open up the history and breadth of different medical approaches, from magic to the ancient Greeks, and the changes set off during the Renaissance. The remaining two thirds of the book present an evolving picture of scientific medicine and the impact of recent technology.
The book is a well balanced mixture, bringing out the fads and fancies that have gripped people from time to time, but also the more substantial benefits of the natural pharmacy and complementary medicine. The mainstream of medicine is dealt with under headings such as Public Health, Germs and Disease, Modern Drugs and Surgery.
This is a broad survey in a small space. I would have liked to learn more about what viruses are, or the way that bugs themselves are evolving, and so diminishing the effect of antibiotics. Still, Medicine is an informative book and the illustrations are a useful ornament to the text.
It is not easy to cover technology, from materials to computing, in 64 pages. In Technology Roger Bridgeman succeeds better than might be expected, tackling each theme with a scatter of good pictures and subtopics giving detailed information. We end up with a short thematic encyclopaedia rather than a book to read through, but it is interesting and all age groups will enjoy dipping into it.
A feature of the book is that it looks at topics through different magnifications. Glamorous hi-tech things such as computers and jet engines only work because of all the unexciting details about how materials behave, and how to join them together. Technology is an edifice built on knowing when to use nails, screws, bolts, pop-rivets, glue (and what sort of glue). The book has some good home truths - that you cannot push a piece of string, and that a pile of bricks is weak if you pull them. The cumulative effect gives a good general impression of the bits, processes and combinations that add up to make the technology around us.
Perhaps the book takes the human factor too much for granted. It is sensitively written, for instance with its violin "a remarkable piece of cutting, shaping and joining that makes dumb timber sing". Yet what of the hands that made it and the brain that guided those hands? The modern lathe is a miracle of precision but Henry Maudslay made its first accurate ancestor by hand. Sometimes it feels as though technology has taken control, a great impersonal force that dominates the human world.
We must always remember that it is a product of the human mind, and that within their own culture Bushmen and Inuits, as much as Maudslay or Whittle in ours, express human creativity. However, we have to understand technology before we can think about it, and this Eyewitness book offers a good introduction.