Monday, October 03, 2016

Tech Treasure Trove! The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay

"Everything a machine does is in accordance with a set of principles or scientific law. To see the way a machine works, you can take the covers off and look inside. But to understand what goes on, you need to get to know the principles that govern its actions. Underlying the actions of all machines is one principle that encompasses all the others--the conservation of energy."

How to explain everything, one thing at a time, is the job for the "Explainer in Chief," David Macaulay, and since the publication of his first go at it, How Things Work, Macaulay has been tweaking and updating his daring compendium of mechanical and electronic inventions, illustrated with humor and diligence for readers from approximately grade seven to adults ever since. Revising his book in 1998 and again in 2004, Macaulay consigned some once game-changing machines such as the VCR to the literary scrap heap, while adding such life-altering new devices as the smart phone, all explained in plain language with intricate layered, cut-away views and not a few Rube Goldberg exploded views that make sense of what for most of us seems the unthinkable.

One reviewer called the 1988 edition of this book "... a work of mammoth imagination, energy, and humor," and author David Macaulay took the critic at his word, giving new life to the shaggy and reputedly extinct mammoth as his beast of burden in this latest iteration of everything you ever wanted to know about the inventions of man, The Way Things Work Now (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

In this newly revised edition Macaulay begins at the beginning with the inclined plane, in his comic drawing of a steep slope leading to a cliff, in which a caveman metaphorically begins man's conquest of nature by rolling a boulder over the edge and down on the head of an unsuspecting mammoth. Simple and complex machines follow, in which Macaulay shows the relationship between the lowly wedge and the all-important zipper, the simple lever, a sturdy log balanced on a convenient rock, and the hydraulic crane.  Methodically Macaulay makes his way throughout the manipulations of assorted machines through the ages, from siege catapults to pianos, from water wheels to jet engines, picturing how similar machines can be made to do multiple tasks. And just when you think we've done about everything that can be done with mechanical means, (about page 309), Macaulay moves on to---The Digital Domain, or the Sad Tale of The Last Mammoth.

Mammoth stood in the stream stuffing clumps of swamp grass into his mouth. As the tender juices trickled down his throat, he contemplated the pros and cons of the solitary life. On the one hand, he didn't have to share the dwindling harvest with any other mammoths--because there were no other mammoths.

The trail of dwindling swamp grass led to an entrance presided over by a character who introduced himself as Bill. Bill announced that this was his "digital domain." ... So it came to pass that Mammoth, who generally distrusted high walls, warily entered Bill's gates.

In this little pun on the creator of Microsoft's digital world, "Bill" sets out to create a world of virtual mammoths to keep our lonely last mammoth company, in the course of which Macaulay explains how computers, keyboards and the mouse, the touchscreen, digitized input (bits, bytes, etc..) and storage, of text, sound, image, and combinations of the same. the internet and network connections and the assorted devices that make use of it such as tablets, smart phones, gaming boxes, and virtual reality itself. It's a mind-blowing, incredibly complex subject on its own, a far cry and yet a direct descendant of the boulder rolled up the inclined plane, but one that young people (and non-tech-savvy adults) can use to grasp what's new now. As hands-on assists, Macaulay provides the necessary appendix to this physically and metaphorically weighty book, Eureka, the Invention of Machines, a glossary of Technical Terms, and a very detailed Index.

Most of us prefer not to go the way of the mammoths, and for that reason, youngsters (and their elders) need this book. The Way Things Work Now is another feather in the cap, a triumph for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's catalog of outstanding science books for young people. Every library should stock this book, from elementary browsing books to home bookshelves for fun and intensive study. As Kirkus' starred review states, "As fresh and funny as ever, a classic compendium,...necessary for every library, personal or otherwise."

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