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The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor

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J. E. Gordon's classic introduction to the properties of materials used in engineering answers some fascinating and fundamental questions about how the structural world around us works. Gordon focuses on so-called strong materials--such as metals, wood, ceramics, glass, and bone--explaining in engaging and accessible terms the unique physical and chemical basis for their inherent structural qualities. He also shows how an in-depth understanding of these materials' intrinsic strengths--and weaknesses--guides our engineering choices, allowing us to build the structures that support our society. This work is an enduring example of first-rate scientific communication. Philip Ball's introduction describes Gordon's career and the impact of his innovations in materials research, while also discussing how the field has evolved since Gordon wrote this enduring example of first-rate scientific communication.

328 pages, Paperback

First published July 30, 1975

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About the author

J.E. Gordon

14 books54 followers
James Edward Gordon (UK, 1913–1998) was one of the founders of materials science and biomechanics, and a well-known author of three books on structures and materials, which have been translated in many languages and are still widely used in schools and universities.


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5 stars
192 (42%)
4 stars
183 (40%)
3 stars
63 (13%)
2 stars
11 (2%)
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7 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 32 reviews
22 reviews
January 1, 2019
It was nice to read this book by J.E. Gordon after reading his first book “Structures”, which was more concerned with how things are built. The new science of strong materials is more concerned with material composition - a mix between materials science and chemistry. I would not consider this book overly technical but rather a 30,000 ft understanding of the subject. For the practicing engineer not involved with complex materials sciences on the day to day this book is great as a refresher of the subject without getting too deep in the weeds.
33 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2013
A fascinating introduction to the basics of materials science, which obviously impacts everything around us. It's slightly dated, mentioning things such as the "recently discovered" Kevlar 49, but if you've ever wondered why glass shatters but steel doesn't, what fiberglass is and how it works, or why metals act the way they do, it's a great read.
Profile Image for Ari.
705 reviews71 followers
October 27, 2022
A gentle, playful introduction to materials science (but with math!).
Some things that stuck with me:

- The core of materials science is relating the microscale chemistry and physics (mostly chemistry) with the empirical macro behavior.
- Culturally, engineers historically treated metals as their own world. There are some reasons for this (metals are ductile in ways few other things are) but a unified presentation is illuminating.
- The common way brittle materials (most materials) fail is cracking and the key thing about composites is that they stop cracks because different parts fail differently and that stops the crack.
Profile Image for Adrian Herbez.
69 reviews6 followers
October 21, 2017
I really enjoyed this one. It was more varied than I would have expected, starting with some really interesting, nitty-gritty details of the chemistry and physics of what leads materials to have the properties they do. From there, it went into a healthy dose of history about how we developed industrial materials, and concluded with a section that's remarkably forward-looking, even today.

If that makes it sound scattered, trust me, it isn't. What it is is a very readable and fascinating book about materials science, written when that subject was just starting to come into its own. Very approachable overall, but not without some really satisfying depth (example: the explanation of why, exactly, composite materials tend to be so much stronger).
Profile Image for Noel Ward.
130 reviews15 followers
June 19, 2020
This book is worth reading for the author’s experiences with different projects in WW2 and observations from the earlier years of flight if nothing else.
Profile Image for Angga Maulana.
22 reviews
January 1, 2022
Professor Gordon is one of the founding fathers of material science. In this quite old book, he laid bare the behaviour of solids at the time when the concept of materials such as dislocations, stress concentrations, crystallization are relatively new.
Some of his predictions are truly achieved with the current technology, however, some are not. Disposable plastics, for example, is a threat to the environment today.
Profile Image for Harry Harman.
587 reviews11 followers
December 21, 2021
Professor Gordon died in 1998. In its obituary The Times wrote of him that he was ‘one of the founders of materials science’

Why do things break? Why do materials have any strength at all? Why are some solids stronger than others? Why is steel tough and why is glass brittle? Why does wood split? What do we really mean by ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’ and ‘brittleness’? Are materials as strong as we ought to expect them to be? How far can we improve existing types of materials? Could we make altogether different kinds of materials which would be much stronger? If so, how, and what would they be like? If we really could make better materials then how and where should we make use of them?

Metals, however, do not have a monopoly of strength. Some of the best combinations of lightness and strength are afforded by non-metals and the strongest substances in existence are the recently discovered ‘whisker’ crystals of carbon and of ceramics.

jump backwards and forwards from the ideas of chemistry to those of engineering. In the current phrase materials science is ‘interdisciplinary’.

while we have some idea of ‘how’ materials behave, we have really very little idea of ‘why’

materials receive, transmit and resist their loads

In the past, of course, instinct and experience were the only guides to the choice of materials and to the design of structures and devices.

the smallest particle one can see with the naked eye is about 500,000 atoms across and the smallest particle one can see with the optical microscope is about 2,000 atoms across. With the electron microscope one can see arrays of atoms in crystals, like soldiers on parade, quite easily and with a device called the field emission microscope one can see individual atoms

the wind, blowing where it listeth, pushes on my chimney pots but the chimney pots, bless them, push back at the wind just as hard, and that is why they don’t fall off. All this is merely a restatement of Newton’s third law of motion which says, roughly speaking, that if the status quo is to be maintained then all the forces on an object must cancel each other out.


If I stretch out my hand and you put a weight on it such as a pint of beer, then I have to increase the tensions in certain muscles so as to sustain the load.

The atoms in a solid are held together by chemical forces or bonds (see Appendix 1) which may perhaps be thought of as electrical springs since there is nothing ‘solid’ in any crude sense to make any other kind of spring.

The only thing, therefore, which can ‘give’ is the interatomic bond. These bonds or springs vary a good deal in stiffness or springiness (or, as the layman might put it, in ‘strength’)

The standard way of measuring the distance between the atoms in a crystal is to study the way in which an X-ray beam is deflected when it passes through the crystal. This method has been used now for sixty years or more and it is nowadays capable of considerable accuracy. It is found that the atoms in a metal, for instance, move apart or together exactly in proportion to the amount by which the metal as a whole is stretched or compressed.



Stress is simply load per unit area. (pounds per square inch)

stress is proportional to strain and vice versa. So, if an elastic body such as a wire is stretched one inch under a load of 100 pounds it will stretch two inches under 200 pounds and so on, pro rata. This is known as Hooke’s law and is regarded as one of the pillars of engineering.

for small strains the whole process of extension and recovery is reversible and can usually be repeated many thousands or millions of times with identical results; the hairspring of a watch which is coiled and uncoiled 18,000 times each hour is a familiar example. This type of behaviour by solids under loading is called ‘elastic’ and is widespread. Elastic behaviour, which is shown by the majority of engineering materials, contrasts with ‘plastic’ behaviour, shown to the extreme by putty and Plasticine, where the material does not obey Hooke’s law

The Young’s modulus of steel, for example, is about 30,000,000 pounds per square inch.

Steel is about the stiffestreasonably cheap material, which is one of the reasons why it isused so widely.

if the material is at allsoft or ductile like mild steel or copper, it will simply squish outsideways, like Plasticine. If the material is brittle, like stone or glass,it will explode sideways (and very dangerous it can be) into dust andsplinters.

architrave or lintel

Roman arches, such as the aqueducts. The wedgeshaped pieces which make up the arch-ring are called ‘voussoirs’.


modern railway station which is roofed with steel trusses
2 reviews
August 25, 2022
A fascinating book, but it is hard work and took me a while. There were many parts that made a lot of sense immediately, and more than I'd like to admit that went over my head for a while or simply remained beyond my comprehension.

I wouldn't recommend this as light reading or for readers with a non-technical background, as this book routinely and unapologetically uses technical engineering language. If you understand what the words mean then it absolutely adds to the experience, as there are very few metaphors with Gordon tending to address issues directly. Without a technical background, the lay-reader may struggle to make sense of certain concepts or spend forever looking up unfamiliar words or complicated processes.

I particularly appreciated the level of detail around how materials behave on a chemical and atomic level that explains rather well certain mechanical phenomena we see in the work around us.

In all, an excellent book that I'll keep close by in my workplace, as it has excellent descriptions of fundamental issues I face as a mechanical engineer. In particular the early chapters on materials fundamentals such as stress and strain, strength, toughness, and cracks.
385 reviews12 followers
November 5, 2021
A captivating introduction to material science with captivating examples. I do have to note that this book is definitely not for amateurs or general 'knowledge-seekers. A-levels/high school physics will barely help you scrape past with an intense amount of googling, and only if you have a huge amount of patience.

I guess the most riveting part of the book was the part on energy transfer between a crack and whether it'll propagate where the author elaborated on the exchange of energy between surface energy created and energy required to break bonds. If you're an engineering enthusiast, the book may be for you, but beware that it is more like a textbook more so than not.
378 reviews2 followers
May 22, 2020
A good if dated read!

The first section is a fascinating introduction to physical processes and as someone who married a metallurgist the final section was great.

However the author's composite background shows in his anti-steel biases a little. The worst impact is that the middle section starts to feel like a catalogue rather than a coherent examination. A victim of his own knowledge.

Overall an excellent read.
Profile Image for Andy Todd.
208 reviews4 followers
December 24, 2017
Gordon has that happy talent of being able to explain arcane technical topics - in this case, materials science - in ways that the everday reader will understand. One of the first popular science texts I read and it remains one of the best.
Profile Image for Jack.
46 reviews
February 14, 2018
If you want to know all about the physical properties of wood and glass, read this. However, it devotes four pages to steel, and it's likely that steel is what prevents you from falling through the floor.
Profile Image for Gisele.
46 reviews
March 7, 2019
I really enjoyed this book. It reminded me of some of the concepts I learned in my Fundamentals of Materials Science and Engineering I (MTSE 3000) class. This book is a great introduction to Materials Science and Engineering.
Profile Image for Matthew Dai.
34 reviews
August 19, 2020
J.E Gordon explains concepts in Materials Science to the common reader well. I am impressed at how the book explains materials of various ages, from the stone age to the metal age. J.E Gordon also used graphs and pictures to keep the audience engaged.
Profile Image for Victor.
264 reviews6 followers
February 17, 2020
Well written in lay man terms the science behind different materials.
22 reviews
April 11, 2020
It is a comprehensive journey through the world of materials presented in a simple manner. I would recommend this book to everyone who is interested in an engineering career.
1 review
April 16, 2020
I am really interested in, Everything You write is very good. Thanks.
Profile Image for Britt Any.
17 reviews6 followers
September 19, 2021
Excellent book. May be difficult for those with little materials exposure but a quick read through the last chapter is arguably worth most people's time.
Profile Image for Gabriel Orgrease.
13 reviews8 followers
February 28, 2010
On a personal level I enjoyed reading about resorcinal glue... it took me back to my childhood. Likewise for Casein. The sections about problems w/ aircraft made of wood during the World Wars I found interesting. I learned stuff about biplanes and gliders... like why plants grow inside of their tails -- causing an acceleration of rot and potential falling off in mid-air. I never knew that early steam engines had wood boilers, or that the biggest technical step forward w/ the development of railroads was in the technical advances in the production of steel rails.

There is a little bit of math, not too much of it and it is not overwhelming once you get past the Angstroms. A whole lot about looking at very very small things with electron microscopes. I have always loved Brownian movement (or I mean, since I first encountered it, no, I mean since I first heard of it I have had a particular fondness for Brownian movement, not to be confused with Brown Spots). Gordon had a sense of humor for a heavy engineering/science geek.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Felix.
14 reviews1 follower
July 25, 2015
"Interesting and educational"

I may be a scientist but I haven't done any physics since GCSE's - this book was a little challenging but not impossible. My other half is a material scientist and he read this book the summer before he went to university. It provides a great introduction to the core ideas in material science and some engineering and makes you look at buildings and vehicles very differently. If fact I now understand why things break in so many different ways. The book is written with great humor and I enjoyed the intellectual challenge it presented - it was helpful to have a professional to hand to give a few more details and we had a fairly in-depth discussion about cantilevers (not something I would have expected to able to do before I started reading). This is popular science but with some depth - expect to learn a lot.
Profile Image for knoba.
138 reviews
April 4, 2019
List Of Plates
Foreword To First Edition
Foreword To Second Edition
1. The New Science Of Strong Materials
Part 1: Elasticity And The Theory Of Strength
2. Stresses And Strains
3. Cohesion
4. Cracks And Dislocations
Part 2: The Non-Metallic Tradition
5. Crack-Stopping
6. Timber And Cellulose
7. Glue And Plywood
8. Composite Materials
Part 3: The Metallic Tradition
9. Ductility In Metals
10. Iron And Steel
11. The Materials Of The Future
Appendix 1: On The Various Kinds Of Solids
Appendix 2: Simple Beam Formulae
15 reviews1 follower
February 11, 2016
I sat through two years of chemistry waiting in vain for it to explain things on a practical level, but it turns out I was in the wrong class; I should've sat through Materials Science. For the abbreviated version, there's this book.

Salts and diamonds are crystals, but so are metals? What does it mean for something to be strong? This is different from being hard? What actually happens when something breaks?

Well-written, with upbeat Britishness, a friendly introduction to Materials Science.
Profile Image for Derek.
15 reviews1 follower
March 7, 2021
Delves deeper into topics covered in Mark Miodownik's "Stuff Matters" and works as a great follow-up. His rhetoric keeps the subject of materials fresh and interesting, never like a textbook despite heavy emphasis in graphs and diagrams. Thankfully, it strays heavily away from complex mathematics but the book's biggest fault is the "plywood and glue" section which suffers from its extra length and lack of detail.
Profile Image for Beth.
309 reviews3 followers
January 30, 2010
Way more fun to read than you'd expect from a book about materials engineering. The author's style is conversational, but there's still a lot of content. I especially liked the chapter about early aircraft design. The only bad thing is that the book was originally written in the 1960's, and even though it was "updated" later, it still is a bit out of date.
Profile Image for Sue Law.
370 reviews
February 1, 2016
One of the best introductions to materials science ever. Originally published in 1968, the coverage of the fundamentals of materials science is superb. The prose is fluent and eminently readable and the descriptions of the basic ideas behind the strength of materials are clear and enlightening.
Not many science books written in the 1960s are still valid and in print. This is one of them.
34 reviews
October 22, 2010
Not as good as Structures but still enlightening on how we can improve materials over time. Only goes up to graphite but that was a precursor to the now-importanct BuckyTubes.
Profile Image for Eric.
Author 1 book1 follower
July 8, 2011
A classic, highly readable book on the science of materials, illustrated with examples from ancient and modern materials.
Profile Image for Dan Cohen.
395 reviews13 followers
July 12, 2014
A splendid book. Makes a dry subject interesting and gives those of us without much engineering savvy a feeling that we might half understand some of the basics.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 32 reviews

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