Skip to main content

The Most Powerful Idea in the World – William Rosen ****

Histories of the industrial revolution are ten-a-penny, and often rather dull. What William Rosen neatly does with his book, subtitled ‘a story of steam, industry and invention’ is manage to make this hugely important topic – this is, after all, the story of the formation of the modern world – fresh and interesting.
I don’t know if it’s because the author is American that the book seemed particularly fresh – having that slight distance from a story that is mostly about Britain gives it an edge, and his inclusion of US context, which might well be missing from a UK version of this story, was valuable.
Of course we’ve got all the familiar characters here – Watt, Arkwright , Trevithick, Stephenson and the rest – but there is so much more. Rosen takes us on a journey (with plenty of side excursions) through the entire development of industrialization and leading to the crowning moment of the Rocket’s performance at the Rainhill Trials. What helps keep it interesting is the way that Rosen mixes details about the technology, the people and the nature of invention and innovation – so you’ll find lots of information on patent law (more interesting than it sounds) alongside the steam valves and thermodynamics. It really makes you think about the approach that should be taken to intellectual property.
Two of my grandparents worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire that was a direct descendent of the mills that are central to Rosen’s story, so I found this particularly interesting on a personal level, but you don’t have to have that connection to feel the importance of this story. It is about the transformation of a rural economy into an industrial one for the first time in history – a transformation that would be followed by the rest of the world. Just occasionally Rosen can be a little flowery in his language, or a little nerdy in his enthusiasm for some aspect of steam engine technology – but this is rare, and can be overlooked because of the quality of the book as a whole.
One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is the detail of the research – the author clearly really likes diving into obscure detail, then bringing it out in a way that intrigues. I wish he hadn’t used footnotes – all the footnotes are worth reading, and would work much better as part of the main text – but that’s a small concern. I’m assuming that the research was thorough. There is one glaring error, but I’m guessing it’s just a slip where he relied on memory and it let him down (I’m always doing this in my books). He attributes the put-down ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting,’ to Kelvin, where it was actually Rutherford who made this cutting remark.
All in all, though, an excellent book about an era that should be essential knowledge for all of us in the modern world.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…