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Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart Hardcover – October 21, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Why can you bend a piece of taffy into all kinds of shapes while a peppermint stick breaks if you push on the middle of it? Why does adding carbon to iron make the resulting metal, steel, stronger, whereas adding sulfur brittles it, making it more liable to break? Eberhart, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, explains the chemistry of metals and other materials to answer these and similar questions. Scientists still have much to learn about how planes of atoms slide over one another when a substance bends, or why impurities can toughen an alloy. In the past, scientists and manufacturers designed new products on a wing and a prayer, hoping that they wouldn't break. The Titanic went down in large part, Eberhart explains, because the iron used in the ship's hull had been made brittle by sulfur, allowing the iceberg to rip through it easily. Today metallurgists have to be able to develop materials with the exact properties needed to avoid another such disaster-think of the Challenger or of an airplane breaking up in flight because a tiny crack was exacerbated by increasing and decreasing air pressure. Hydrogen-powered cars are still in the future because hydrogen embrittles most substances it comes into contact with, so new and tougher engines need to be designed to withstand it. Though Eberhard uses many examples from everyday life to illustrate his points, his discussion gets more specialized as the book progresses, making it best for science buffs.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In materials science, nothing succeeds like failure, for it prompts discovery of what caused a disaster. In trying to understand why things break, scientists like Eberhart know that a fracture starts at the level of atomic bonds, but determining precisely what forces a bond to break remains a mystery. Shake-and-bake metallurgy and glass manufacturing has taken technology pretty far, furnishing us with jet turbines and Corningware galore, but, as Eberhart explains, making engines even more powerful and ceramics more fracture resistant runs into roadblocks at the quantum-mechanical scale. Atoms drift around, making material more brittle, and bonds stretch and bend in certain angles, all aspects of the fracture problem that Eberhart has investigated. He translates the technicalities of this field into accessible layperson's terms, aided by autobiographical excursions into his experiences with research funding, and with the public's generally deficient appreciation of technological risk: nothing is unbreakable, though we (or tort lawyers) demand that everything should be so. A very readable work for technology buffs, especially those who enjoyed Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back (1996). Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1 edition (October 21, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400047609
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400047604
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,229,513 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Marissa Carter on April 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Why Things Break is one scientist's account of how he came to came to investigate the science of fracture mechanics at a molecular level--not really the how, but the why. Although the narrative is sometimes rambling, and Dr. Eberhart digresses considerably at tangents to make his points, the stories are well worth reading. It is also illustrative of the career of a scientist tackling a field that is new: full of obstacles to be overcome.
Particularly interesting--at least I found them so--are the stories of creating ever tougher and harder materials, from metal to ceramics, starting with ancient techniques thousands of years ago. If you've ever wondered how the Samurai made their swords, or how steel ultimately replaced bronze in the case of weapons, Eberhart's vignettes will delight you. The case study of Corning's Corelle line is especially instructive in demonstrating the pitfalls of trying to make commercially viable materials that don't break easily, and often one gets the impression this was a solution looking for a problem. Other fascinating examples include the sinking of the Titanic, the armor aboard the USAF's C141, and litigation involving the fracturing of a cast-iron pump.
Most of the science presented will be understandable to an arts major, although on occasion the chemistry might prove hard going--sometimes explanations in science can be tough! On pages 142-143, the author makes some errors: the WWII aircraft he cites--the Supermarine Spitfire and the Mitsubishi Zero--were not mostly made of wood; rather new aluminum alloys were used. Perhaps Erhard was thinking of the twin-engine DeHavilland Mosquito fighter-bomber.
My only criticism is that the real why of things breaking is really relegated to a couple of chapters at the end of the book, but possibly this is because still so little is known about the subject.
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By A Customer on January 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book because it appeared to be aimed at showcasing the field of Fracture Mechanics to the lay person - certainly a daunting task in view of the depth of knowledge normally required to understand 'why things break". I wanted to see how the author would approach such a difficult subject (and without any pictures!). To my pleasant surprise this book was much more than an attempt to do "technology transfer". Eberhart has written a semi-autobiographical text that immerses the reader in the author's metamorphosis from a young child wondering about breaking atoms in butter with his knife to a full-fledged academic professor and researcher who asks and answers "why", not "how" or "when", but "why" something broke or failed. The examples given range from understanding how glass shatters, how Correlle ware is not really unbreakable, to the tragedy of the Challenger accident and the need to listen to engineers when they become wary about a material or system entering an unknown environment. Eberhart does lament the "pecking order" of science and the politically correct way that research funding in North America is meted out, but this, in my view, is an accurate reflection of how the approach our government agencies and industries are taking to funding fundamental research is leading our society towards mediocrity, inhibiting development of revolutionary ideas that can transform society into better ways to do things much quicker. While a conservative approach can provide a safer and lower risk result, it also can significantly slow the rate at which new ideas bubble to the surface. Research must be risk-taking by its very nature.Read more ›
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By A Customer on November 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I was attracted to this book after hearing the author on a radio interview and then reading the reviews on Amazon. I am not much of a science enthusiast, a little goes a long way, but I do like books about scientists. Both reader reviews seemed to indicate that "Why things break" is just that kind of book and it is. I so enjoyed following Dr. Eberhart's scientific development from a small child, concerned that cutting an atom would cause a nuclear explosion, to his eventual theories about bonds. Though some of this was over my head, I did feel as if I was participating in Dr. Eberhart's journey of discovery and learning a lot about materials on the way.
After reading the book, I felt as if I knew the Author and would enjoy having dinner with him.
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Format: Paperback
Is it worth reading? Maybe. I waffle between 2 and 3 stars.

I didn't buy it from Amazon, I picked it up at the library - it caught my eye - because, of course I want to know why things break, why bridges fall down - what can I do to keep things from breaking.

Eberhart never gets there. It's a rambling treatise on his education on fracture - which is considerable. Along the way are some interesting stories - with some Nobel Prize Winner name dropping and envy thrown in.

He ends the book by telling about his "breakthrough" research about molecular bonding and charge densities that reminded me slightly of a graduate level engineering chemistry class. Seems like he tells you, at a molecular level, what the qualities of a material that doesn't break are. But then it stops.

He tells you about a company that a co researcher has formed to commercialize the ideas - are you supposed to call them for advice on which things will break and which won't? What about that question, what can I do? - back to 2 stars.
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