Warning: This post may contain spoilers for Stephen L Sass’s The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon
If you’ve been following my posts, and certainly if you know me, you probably have realized that I’m a little bit of the so-called “renaissance man,” the kind of individual who is fascinated by learning, irrespective of the subject, but especially by how different subjects interact. In my mind, one of the most significant drawbacks of the modern education system is its tendency to silo or stovepipe ideas and topics. Yet as I learned in The Substance of Civilization, it was partially the work of Flemish artists that led to the invention of the movable type printing press. So no, it probably isn’t terribly surprising that I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Sass’s book that so well combined the disparate disciplines of history and materials science.
Actually, it’s been awhile since I enjoyed a nonfiction book quite as much as I enjoyed this one. From page to page, I was not only learning new and interesting things about both materials and human history – I was thinking about other implications and considerations, taking the ideas being expressed in the text and spinning them out in a dozen other, different directions. As far as I’m concerned, there can be perhaps no better guide to how good a piece of nonfiction really is.
In fact, my main critiques of the book are that it was too short – I could have easily enjoyed it at twice the length, with more information on both the science and history components – and that it is slightly out of date. There were a few points in the later sections where the author attempts to do some prognosticating that has been proven wrong in the decade or so since the book was first published, which is a little jarring, and there are some modern materials with which I’m familiar (carbon nanotubes, lithium-ion batteries) that could have used some coverage. Yet as far as critiques go, these are really quite positive; if Sass decided to write an updated/expanded version, I would absolutely buy it.
With my background in engineering, I had no trouble with the technical description, which I know has been a critique by some of the piece, but I think someone without a technical background would have little more difficulty than I did. This is not meant to be a comprehensive study of material chemistry or material science, and Sass does an excellent job of keeping the more technical sections at a high level, and explaining the scientific terms he employed. One of the great parts of the book were the bits of etymology that he includes, like how “carat” became the unit of choice for measuring gemstones, or the origin of the term “placebo” (it turns out that it comes from people who just came to funerals for the free food, if you were curious).
This truly is neither a history book, nor a science book, but something in between that does an excellent job of covering both topics. It goes a long ways towards revealing just how complex and interconnected our world is, and how truly understanding something requires being able to look at an idea from many perspectives. It’s also a good reminder that the innovations and discoveries that will shape the next decades are not going to be the ones that are just extensions of what we already have, but ones that no one sees coming. For years now, I’ve been telling people who weren’t sure what to study (in a joking fashion, I promise) that they should become material scientists, making the next big strides in human civilization will require new materials, and this book supports that assertion. So I highly encourage you to go read The Substance of Civilization.