Cool Things: The Way Things Work

Let’s talk about the way things work.

Excuse me. Let’s talk about The Way Things Work.

Much better.

This book is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Neil Ardley wrote and David Macaulay illustrated this excellent tome to take many of the pieces of technology we encounter in the day to day and explain to us, well, the way they work. Done wrong, this process could turn out to be incredibly boring but, thanks to Arley’s conversational writing style and Macaulay’s whimsical illustrations, we find ourselves being interested and engrossed instead. Sure, the books are crawling with wooly mammoths (mimmoths?) and the gizmos aren’t always drawn to perfect scale, but the scientific principles the book engages with are surprisingly deep and thorough.

The book is broken into sections ranging from the very basic mechanical principles up to electricity and primitive electrical devices and, if you pick up the updated version, basic computing ideas. Don’t remember how buoyancy works? Treat yourself to a quick refresher and a chuckle as you watch a hapless mammoth try and keep its balance in a too-small boat. Never understood how a nuclear power plant works? There’s a basic primer here that will leave you with a better understanding of the process – and profoundly grateful that mammoths never got their hands on enriched uranium.

Now there’s not really a whole lot new or unique going on in this book. If you’ve been to a high school physics class you’ve probably seen half or even all of this before, but that’s kind of the point. The Way Things Work takes high school level material and breaks it down to a level that even a young grade school student could easily understand it. In fact, I was in first or second grade when I first read this book and I loved it. Not because I was unusually smart (although I’m not so humble as to deny that I might have been) but because the material was presented in such a simple, straight-forward and engaging way.

The mammoth motif is a great example. Do we need woolly mammoths (and the attendant theories of extinction) on nearly every page to appreciate the ideas presented? No, of course not. But it’s these added touches of whimsy and fun that make the book engrossing and they succeed in making advanced ideas accessible to younger minds. For that alone the book would be worth the price of admission. That the book holds up well to age, continuing to engross and teach us slightly more chronologically advanced folk just adds to the value of the book.

Whether you’re looking for a quick, fun primer to physics and mechanics for a young person(s) in your life, or you just need a quick, fun refresher on the same for yourself, The Way Things Work is the book for you.

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