September 08, 2016


The Way Things Work Now. By David Macaulay with Neil Ardley and Jack Challoner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $35.

     There are few reference books that need to be in a family’s library nowadays, because so much of what kids – and parents – want or need to know is only a click or two away on the Internet. This book, though, does belong on the shelf of any family with any member with any sense of curiosity about just about anything. David Macaulay has a thing about inward workings: his books on how buildings are constructed and how they function, starting with Cathedral and continuing through City, Castle and others, are astonishingly detailed, beautifully conceived and executed, and amazingly informative. In The Way Things Work Now, a much-revised and much-updated version of The Way Things Work (1988) and The New Way Things Work (1998), Macaulay, with assistance from Jack Challoner and the late Neil Ardley, combines meticulously accurate descriptions of many, many functions of many, many items with a highly amusing “framing tale” at whose center is nothing less than a mammoth.

     The mammoth inclusion is a wonderful stroke that encourages young readers (and, to be honest, their parents) to stick with material that could otherwise be, well, sticky – complex and potentially, even in simplified form, difficult to understand. The introductory pages of The Way Things Work Now, for example, get right into matters such as kinetic, potential, electric and chemical energy, heat and friction, and more. Lest any of this be off-putting to readers, Macaulay includes along the bottom six scenes of a mammoth doing some things that mammoths surely did not do, such as balancing on a wheel, swinging another (much smaller) mammoth around by its trunk, and hopping up and down atop four springs attached to the bottoms of its four feet.  The mammoth’s expressions are marvelous, with an air of wide-eyed innocence that beautifully complements the text. And when readers finish the introduction and turn the page to get into the meat of the book, the first thing they encounter is “the inclined plane,” for which they get a sound scientific explanation along the bottom of two pages with, along the pages’ top, a tongue-in-cheek discussion of using an inclined plane to capture mammoths – thereby ending the “older” approach of building towers from which to catch them, with the narrator explaining that as to the towers, “I made a few more calculations and then suggested commercial and retail development on the lower levels and luxury apartments above.”

     Clearly The Way Things Work Now is a science book that does not take itself too seriously – except that, well, yes, it does. Macaulay keeps the amusing sidelights carefully separate from the serious analyses, except to the extent that he uses mammoth matters to illustrate scientific principles, for instance showing a befuddled-looking mammoth whose fur has been partly trimmed using an electric trimmer (whose operation is accurately described next to the silly picture). The machines shown in The Way Things Work Now vary widely in complexity and are pictured in quite a few different sizes, to make it easier to illustrate their mechanisms. Here too the pictures complement the descriptions beautifully. Still in the section on levers, for instance, there is an explanation of nail clippers, “a neat combination of two levers that produce a strong cutting action while at the same time being easy to control.” A nail clipper is shown from the perspective of Lilliputians: little figures are about to pull down on its handle with a stout rope while others guide a finger with over-long nail to the right spot for clipping, and one figure gamely struggles to drags away a nail clipping around which a rope has been tied to make its obviously heavy weight easier to move.

     Cleverness of this sort is pervasive in The Way Things Work Now. Indeed, it is a big reason the book is so attractive as well as useful. In 400 oversized pages, Macaulay covers five areas: “The Mechanics of Movement,” “Harnessing the Elements,” “Working with Waves,” “Electricity & Automation,” and “The Digital Domain.” The first part is where you will find everything from the grand piano to the sewing machine to automotive seat belts. The second part includes, among many other things, helicopters, hot-air balloons, fire extinguishers, astronauts’ jet packs, and nuclear reactors – with a look at how a fusion reactor might work if one could be devised. In the third part are bulbs (including, in this updated version of the book, LED lamps), microscopes, lasers, holograms (showing how one would make a holographic mammoth), Blu-ray players (again, an addition to earlier versions of the book), earphones (showing the Mona Lisa using them), and (another new element) smartphones. The fourth part explains batteries, photocopiers, electric motors, car ignition systems, radar, security scanners and much more. The fifth section, whose material will be the most familiar to many young readers even though they may not have the faintest idea how any of it actually performs its functions, includes the computer mouse and keyboard, touchscreen, digitized images and sound, video-game controllers, hard disks, barcodes, the Internet and World Wide Web (not the same thing!), and more.

     At the very end of The Way Things Work Now is a section called “The Invention of Machines” that, although not necessary to understand how machines work, has its own fascination in explaining where common ones came from – when, how and by whom they were invented. This section is filled with delightful trivia: can openers as we know them were invented a century later than the cans they open; the zipper was created in 1891 but not named until 1926; metal screws were in use by 1556, but the screwdriver was not invented until 1780; and much more. What Macaulay manages here, with the same skill shown in his books about architecture, is to explain hard-to-understand operations in ways that are clear but do not come across as talking down to readers or “dumbing down” the concepts themselves. There have been other books doing similar things – the best recent one, by far, is Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. But what distinguishes The Way Things Work Now is that it explains simple stuff, or at least apparently simple stuff, as well as matters of considerable complexity; and all the explanations can be followed by young readers as well as adults -- the vocabulary, while not overly easy, is forthright enough for that. Pulling all this together into so informative and interesting a volume was obviously a, ahem, mammoth undertaking. The result is wonderfully entertaining as well as exceptionally useful, the sort of book for which Internet access is simply no substitute.

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