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Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape Hardcover – September 26, 2005

4.8 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

We are surrounded by the hardware of the modern world, but how much of it do we even notice, much less understand? This unique and fascinating book covers the parts of the landscape that are often overlooked despite their ubiquity--objects such as utility poles, power lines, cell phone towers, highway overpasses, railroad tracks, factories, and other man-made mechanical marvels. And they are not just in urban areas, but include out of the way "ecosystems" such as mines, dams, wind farms, power plants, grain operators, steel mills, and oil refineries. In Infrastructure, Brian Hayes offers clear explanations of the systems that keep the modern world running, including agriculture, energy supplies, shipping, air transportation, and the various ingenious methods of recycling and managing the waste we generate.

Subtitled "A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape," the book is laid out like a nature guide, with comprehensive details and photographs on every page. "There can be just as much of interest happening on a factory rooftop as there is in the forest canopy, just as much to marvel at in the operation of a strip-mining dragline as in the geological carving of a river canyon," writes Hayes. A mine may not be as scenic as a mountain peak, but he argues it can hold as much fascination. His "chief aim is simply to describe and explain the technological fabric of society, not to judge whether it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly." In this he does an impressive job. He tells us how things work and why they are located where they are, and answers dozens of practical questions in the process. He also walks us through how raw materials such as coal, timber, petroleum, and water are converted and transported for use in our homes and businesses. Readers won't view the industrial landscape that same way after poring over this remarkable book. --Shawn Carkonen

From Scientific American

Field guides to nature abound, and they are invaluable for pinning down the name of a songbird or hawk that flashes by. Now a veteran science writer has crisscrossed the U.S. photographing and writing a different sort of vade mecum, one to the built environment--the electric-power substations and cargo cranes, cell phone towers, tank farms and derricks that show themselves on highways and country roads, unsung structures as much in need of identification and explanation as any bird. In the original, highly readable Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, Brian Hayes adapts the form of the field guide to "everything that isn't nature," as he writes. "There can be just as much of interest happening on a factory rooftop as there is in the forest canopy." The book seeks not just to identify common sights of the technological landscape but to explain how these sights fit together, starting with raw materials like coal, water and food, moving through interconnecting networks like roadways and the electric-power grid, and ending with what he calls the nether end of the industrial economy, waste disposal. "You might as well get to know what it's called and what it does," he writes of this landscape. "It's all around you.... If you would pull off the highway to admire a mountain vista ... you might also consider pausing for a mine or a power plant." Camera in hand, Hayes spent 1992 to 2004 compiling much of the material for the book, supported in part by the Sloan Foundation's program on public understanding of technology. A technophile, he hopes to change some common attitudes toward the industrial landscape--"In the presence of nature we hold our breath ... in the presence of industry we hold our nose," he writes. He undertakes this task partly through hundreds of photographs taken from airplanes, cars, and the public side of many a chain-link fence, partly through the direct, accessible prose of a man who appreciates the history, engineering, and aesthetics of such wonders as barn hay hoods, grain elevators, oil pipelines, and the ventilation towers of the Holland Tunnel. Should we never get to some of these sights ourselves--and tours are harder to find since September 11, because authorities have discontinued public access to dams, reservoirs and other installations--Hayes brings us along for a closer look at many of them. Down sewer manholes: "Sounds were deadened. The fragrance was strong but not overpowering." And into the generator gallery of a hydroelectric plant: "The noises are all low notes--hums, buzzes, groanings, rhythmic vibrations that you feel rather than hear." Inside a concrete dam, he describes "a network of galleries and shafts rather like the secret passageways of an Egyptian pyramid." Along country roads, Hayes explores all the technological sights, from tractors and combines to the history and design of the once dominant technology for enclosing animals, barbed wire: "As light as air. Stronger than whisky. Cheaper than dust," as one of its early proponents described it. The wire was typically stapled to wood posts, but Hayes found a spot in Kansas where wood was in such short supply that posts were carved of limestone, a sight he immediately photographed, of course. The book is studded with explanations of common but uncelebrated objects--those dumbbells that hang from the undersides of power conductors (to absorb wind-induced vibration); the odd holes in barns (for owls invited in to eat the mice); and the colorful globes on power transmission lines that cross rivers (to alert pilots of tall-masted boats and low-flying aircraft). He explains why the concrete-making truck you are following is turning clockwise briskly (to mix the concrete) or slowly (to keep the aggregate from settling out) and why the plume erupting from the smokestack at the sugar mill isn't menacing (it's water vapor). Hayes takes on the inevitable thicket of specialized terminology gracefully, adding comparisons to make new terms and processes understandable. A style of floodgates works "like a rolltop desk"; bricks are "sliced from an extruded ribbon of clay by a fine wire, like a cheese cutter." He helps readers appreciate the scale of objects in photographs--for example, the vast machinery of strip mining--by including a nearby object such as a school bus, a car or a Porta Potti. The book ends with an extensive list for further reading, flagged with the word KIDS for younger readers and GEEKS for material more suitable for enthusiasts. Today, he points out in an afterword, the industrial landscape has become a lonely place, with one crane operator replacing gangs of longshoremen; one gargantuan strip-mining machine, a team of miners. This increasingly automated world is gradually becoming invisible to most of us. "Your home is probably connected to an electric-power substation, a telephone switching office, a water filtration plant," Hayes writes. "Do you know where they are ... or what they look like?" Perhaps after reading this extraordinary book, more people will be inspired to find out.

Anne Eisenberg is a science writer, most recently of the "What's Next" feature for the New York Times, which appeared from 2000 to 2005.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton (September 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059979
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059977
  • Product Dimensions: 10.3 x 10.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #743,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By John Matlock on November 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In times past everyone pretty well knew what everything you saw was, how it was built, and what it was for. Now, you can't keep up. This book might be called a field guide to modern technology. It answers the questions you or your scientifically oriented high-schooler might ask, like:

Why are cell phone antennas triangular

Why are power plant cooling towers shaped the way they are

How do train signals work (There's a whole chapter on railroads.)

and bridges

and airports

and ships

and mines

and dams

and sewers

and barns.

It seems that nothing has escaped the camera and inquisitive mind of the author. It's a fascinating book, suitable for coffee table or especially to keep in the car when driving with the inquisitive kid. It's a book that I pick up when interested in something, and then find that I haven't put it down until I've covered ten or twenty pages. I guess I'm still the inquisitive kid.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Brian Hayes has produced an excellent book which descibes the workings of the industrial infrustructure as we see it on the surface of the industrialised world, in particular the US and Italy.

Hayes clearly explains what we often see as mysterious, arcane and inexplicable structures in the industrial landscape in clear terms, without becoming tediously technical and using difficult technical terminology, regarding those who may not be overly familar with the mechanics and procedures of mining, energy production and other similar industries.

The text is profusely illustrated with clear colour photographs with captions on every page. Very few diagrams are included, unless absolutely necessary. The captions associated with the photographs elucidate the workings of the machinery or structures depicted. Details such as pylon insulators are also explained. Importantly, a sense of scale is always provided by pointing out an object in the picture which is recognisable.

This is an important book, long needed. It is non-judgemental, and written with a playfulness which makes it all the more engaging. The analogies and explanations given are clear, and the language is accessible most readers including young people from the age of ten, without being condescending.

Infrastructure is a well designed book, produced on art paper (glossy and china coated), and is actually quite weighty. The layout is clear and functional, good typography and eminently legible. The design matches its contents.
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Format: Hardcover
My husband is the kind of guy who likes to drive out into the countryside following power lines to see where they go. The book seemed like a natural fit, so I ordered it for him for Valentine's day.

Mistake! He spent much of the evening of the 14th poring over the pages, "plugged into the Source," so to speak. (To his credit, he eventually tore himself away from it--with great regret.) So: excellent gift for the technical guys and gals in your life, but don't expect them pay attention to you any time in the next two weeks.

I'd guess Infrastructure would also be a good non-TV option for frazzled moms with bright, incessantly questioning children. Plunk them on the couch, plop the book on their lap, don't forget to provide food and water periodically.

Surprisingly, I found myself drawn to the book as well. I fall into an unresponsive trance when anyone so much as mentions an internal combustion engine, but Brian Hayes is quite seductive. He caught my eye with the gorgeous pictures and layout; I stayed to read the captions, then lingered to skim the text, and suddenly I was fascinated by mega-mining machines and exit ramp layouts.

Even the pages smell good.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is incredible. It explains so many of the things you look at but don't really understand when you drive around the world, presented in clear, immensely enjoyable text written for the literate layman.

Everything is written from the viewpoint of the observer, so that explanations of the purpose of an object are accompanied by descriptions of how to recognize it and spot it "in the field". The chapter on the power grid, for example, covers so much of "Things on telephone poles", that I now have trouble driving a straight line down a road that runs near a power line because my eyes are drawn upward trying to spot pieces of equipment. He even includes a box explaining the telephone pole itself.

The author has basic, easy to read explanations of any science or technical information that may be helpful in understanding the function of objects. The explanations of items and places are clear and easy to read, never bogging down for even the most technical of items. His photography provides clear examples of what is mentioned in the text. International examples abound, and make interesting comparisons to U.S. standards. Also, a fascinating introduction and many points in the text raise and discuss interesting questions about the impact of the often large-scale infrastructure on our environment and society.

This book is like a huge jar of peanuts: so much that you would never be able to complete it in a few sittings, but once you start it is hard to put it down. And whenever I pass by it on the table, I always want to read a section or two. It is a fantastic reference, inspiring moments of "aha, that's what that is" at every turn.

The author's bio mentions that he has been working on it for 15 years, and this dedication shows. It is hard to imagine how one man can accomplish such an encyclopedic work as this, even in 15 years. Clearly, a labor of love that has produced a terrific volume that I'm sure I will enjoy for years.
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