Allie Ford Reviews Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis
Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis by Laurie Winkless
Physicist turned science communicator Laurie Winkless is a fan of trains, tunnels, skyscrapers and most cool new technologies. Her enthusiasm shines through in her first book, which aims to take readers behind the scenes, under the ground and into the future of modern metropolises all over the World. The book is split into eight chapters, each with a one-word title. Seven chapters each focus on a specific aspect of city construction, evolution or life – including roads, power, and water. The final chapter is a trip to the future to see what life in a city might look like by the mid-21st century. Chapters follow a predictable pattern, outlining how cities work today, and some of the challenges they are facing, as well as how they got there. The second part of each chapter considers ‘Tomorrow’ – the various technologies that are already appearing, and making predictions for what might happen next. Much of the information, for both the present and future sections, is supported by quotes from published research, or experts as diverse as oceanographers, Engineering Geology professors, the Transport for London Director of Bus Engineering and the bosses of global rail and car-manufacturing companies. Examples are equally diverse, discussing everything from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to the Menai Bridge in North Wales, and from London’s sewers to Shanghai’s ports.
The book is a whirlwind, whistle-stop tour through everything you never knew about cities. Winkless’s passion for the subject is infectious. The conversational tone can feel a little forced in places, but you quickly get sucked back in again. The sheer amount of information contained in the book is mind boggling, but the level of detail is just right – it rarely feels overwhelming, but you don’t feel like anything is missing either. It’s rare to go more than a couple of pages without a footnote providing an extra factoid or some commentary about Winkless’s antics when collecting information for the books (she really, really likes tunnels!). Even though the book highlights huge challenges being faced by cities, their planners and governments around the world, you’re never left to mope: turn the page and myriad solutions will be presented, at any stage from initial concept to already-in-use-somewhere.
This is a book full of solutions that brings hope for the future at a time when the media only tell us what is going wrong. There is a lot of science hidden between the facts, but it’s readily accessible and very clearly explained. Individual sections focussing on particular challenges or solutions are fairly short, making it a book that is easy to pick up from wherever you last left off. My only criticism would be that there are places where an extra figure or photo would be really useful to support the discussion – and a few other points where the pictures don’t really add much.
Overall, this is a great book, full of reasons to be excited about the future, and that there are so many passionate people around the world, all working on seemingly small ideas that have the potential to revolutionise our lives. The tone is such that it would be a fantastic book for parents to read with science-interested young kids, as well as for older ones to tackle by themselves. If you know someone who has the faintest interest in science, engineering or the future, buy them this book! And buy a copy for yourself too. You won’t regret it.
Allie fell in love with science when she spotted test tubes full of different coloured solutions at high school. She studied astrophysics and chemistry at university. She taught Bioastronomy for several years, as well as being an active participant in the Science in Schools program, and touring Australia as a cast member in the RiAus/BBC Science of Doctor Who Live show. Allie loves reading and learning new things, often ‘helped’ by her two parrots (who prefer eating books to reading them).