The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon

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9781559704731: The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon
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"What Sass does—and does well—is convey the richness of the material world and the ingenuity of humankind in making use of it." —Kirkus Reviews

The story of human civilization can be read most deeply in the materials we have found or created, used or abused. They have dictated how we build, eat, communicate, wage war, create art, travel, and worship. Some, such as stone, iron, and bronze, lend their names to the ages. Others, such as gold, silver, and diamond, contributed to the rise and fall of great empires. How would history have unfolded without glass, paper, steel, cement, or gunpowder?

The impulse to master the properties of our material world and to invent new substances has remained unchanged from the dawn of time; it has guided and shaped the course of history. Sass shows us how substances and civilizations have evolved together. In antiquity, iron was considered more precious than gold. The celluloid used in movie film had its origins in the search for a substitute for ivory billiard balls. The same clay used in the pottery of antiquity has its uses in today’s computer chips.

Moving from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon, from the days of prehistoric survival to the cutting edge of nanotechnology, this fascinating and accessible book connects the worlds of minerals and molecules to the sweep of human history, and shows what materials will dominate the century ahead.

19 color illustrations

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About the Author:

Stephen L. Sass is a professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, where he has won a number of teaching awards. He currently lives in Ithaca, New York.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Remember when you learned about the Stone Age, followed by Bronze and Iron? Well, it didn't exactly stop there, and Sass, a Cornell materials-science professor, is our guide to all the successive wonders of luck, pluck, and technology that have enabled us to move from cave days to today's steel-polyethylene-and-silicon world. Moving chronologically, with some time out to explain what makes metal metal or introduce notions like yield strength, plastic deformation, and dislocations, Sass treats the reader to a materials-science course for the layperson, laced with lots of didja-knows: Did you know that smelting copper often meant releasing toxic arsenic gas, which is probably why Hephaestus in the Iliad is described as lame? That ``carat'' comes from the Greek keration, for locust-pod tree, because the dried pod nearly always weighed 200 milligrams (now the standard)? In short, there are gobs of wonderful trivia as well as accounts of the technological innovations that led to ever hotter furnaces, blown glass, steel from iron, and all the latter-day wonders, from synthetic rubber, celluloid, and rayon to aluminum alloys, Kevlar, plastics, silicon chips, and composites. How each of these material discoveries and inventions affected society is an important subtextbut the point of view is largely apolitical. (The reader will infer that building bigger and better arms, however, has clearly been a strong motivating force for material invention.) Sass is not always successful in getting the reader over technological hurdles; there are pages of photos (unseen), but the text could surely use diagrams as well. What he doesand does wellis convey the richness of the material world and the ingenuity of humankind in making use of it. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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