Why Things Break

Eberhart, Mark E. Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

From humanity’s earliest attempts at rock sharpening to today’s high-powered materials design labs, Why Things Break relates the story of our attempt to discover (or create) the unbreakable material. Eberhart discusses the history of hard things, going to great pains to reveal the scientific process itself---in all its messy detail. A great deal of thought, a great deal of testing, and a little bit of luck have all contributed to our understanding of how substances behave under stress. And while Eberhart may steer a little too far into his own biography at times, if science textbooks spent a little more time discussing the process of discovery---as well as the many colorful personalities involved---science might seem less dry, and people might be less likely to fall for anti-science charlatans. Concerned with the “why” rather than the “how,” Eberhart involves the reader by drawing on some fairly well-known breakdowns, including the sinking Titanic and the exploding Challenger shuttle. In doing so, he exposes some relatively unknown structural flaws, explains the mechanics behind the failures, and examines how such incidents change our perceptions of “unbreakable.” Written for the non-scientist, Why Things Break is quite readable; although if you struggled through high school chemistry some of the material may be a bit tough going. But not to worry, even the scientists don’t completely understand it.