Text Tool: Eight Amazing Engineering Stories

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Regular readers will probably recognize Bill Hammack’s name, by now, and require no introduction to him or his work. Briefly, then: Bill’s a professor of chemical engineering and front man for the three-person Engineer Guy team based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Working with co-authors Patrick Ryan and Nick Ziech, Bill produces short, insightful, illuminating science and technology documentaries that highlight the all-too-often-overlooked engineering wonders that surround us every day.

MAKE first linked out to an Engineer Guy video back in July 2010; specifically, that was the seventh episode of series #1, about how Xerox-process photocopiers work. Just last week, we hit the eighth and final episode of series #4, covering lead-acid batteries. In the intervening months, Bill and company have produced thirty-odd videos while maintaining—and even improving upon—their consistently high quality level.

Engineer Guy series #4 is the first to include a companion book. Bill sent me a copy of Eight Amazing Engineering Stories back in May, shortly after the first video in the new series came out, and I read it more-or-less as intended, following along with each of its eight chapters as the corresponding videos were released. Generally, I would watch the video, read the chapter, then watch the video again.

Each chapter features a different chemical element, or set of elements, and an engineering marvel based on it. In book order, these are:

  1. Digital Cameras: How a CCD Works (Selenium/Silicon)
  2. How a Smartphone Knows Up From Down (Silicon)
  3. How an Atomic Clock Works (Cesium)
  4. The Hardest Step in Making an Atomic Bomb (Uranium)
  5. The Lead-Acid Battery (Lead)
  6. Anodizing, or The Beauty of Corrosion (Aluminum/Titanium)
  7. How a Microwave Oven Works (Tungsten/Thorium/Copper)
  8. How a Laser Works (Chromium/Helium/Neon)

Throughout the text, page-long “sidebars” offer brief, fascinating detours into related subjects both technical and historical—everything from why stainless steel doesn’t rust to the details of Allied intelligence operations to recover German nuclear secrets after WWII. Three short “primer” sections between chapters offer simple, plain-language treatments of basic physical science concepts that may be helpful in understanding the main text: nuclear structure, electromagnetic waves, and atomic spectroscopy.

Though the book and the videos compliment each other nicely, each also stands up well on its own. Taken together, they would make a great supplemental unit for a high school AP physics class or an engineering-themed undergraduate humanities component. The prose itself is a pleasure to read, and, as always, Bill, Patrick, and Nick have done a great job of making the material approachable and easy to understand without sacrificing technical accuracy. Highly recommended, both as an educational text and just for fun.

Announcing: Companion Book For Engineer Guy Series #4

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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