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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Neil Broom talks about The Secret Life of Number 8

Neil Broom had an academic position in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland, one that combined both his love of pure research and the teaching of materials science to engineering students. During his lecturing career, Neil has introduced multitudes of first-year engineering students to the science of materials.

Now retired, Neil Broom is an Emeritus Professor and a Fellow of the Royal Society of NZ. Neil talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Secret Life of Number 8.

This book is a non-specialist’s guide to the science of those ordinary materials used to produce the vast array of tools, instruments, components, and structures (both large and small) that have so powerfully shaped how we live in the modern world. Employing homely and easily understood illustrations, the book ‘scratches beneath the surface’ of these materials to demonstrate how their underlying structures, right down to the atomic or molecular level, present a fascinating blend of beautiful order and striking complexity. The book then explains how this structural richness gives rise to a wide range of material properties and characteristics that are so useful to us in everyday living. The iconic Number 8 theme links each chapter and is used to introduce key scientific concepts, these always explained in easily understood, down-to-earth language, and richly illustrated.

The book explores questions such as: What makes some materials strong – even super-strong – but others pathetically weak? Why are some ductile or malleable whereas others dangerously brittle? Think of the huge difference in strength between easily bent florist wire and say a piece of piano wire. Think of a nail that buckles annoyingly when hammered into a piece of hard wood. But if the nail is withdrawn and re-straightened it can often be hammered ‘home’ without further difficulty. Pure aluminium, although very light, is both extremely weak and highly malleable. The science of how this metal can be rendered so strong that it forms the material foundation of modern aviation, is explained. Why does temperature so dramatically alter the properties of many plastics? Why do some have that soft ductile ‘feel’ at room temperature whereas others at the same temperature feel quite crackly or brittle? Why is it that some metals annoyingly rust or corrode but others retain their pristine appearance? Answers to these kinds of questions, and so many more, will be found in this book.

What inspired you to write this book?

For many years I taught an introductory course on the science of materials to a large class of 1st year engineering students at the University of Auckland. Many, if not most of these students assumed they would be subjected (some unwillingly) to a course largely about chemistry. What they quickly discovered was that most of the content in the lectures was entirely new to them. They found it to be of high interest, and had relevance across a wide range of engineering disciplines. On retiring I decided that given the course’s general appeal much of its content could form the basis of a book that might well resonate with a non-specialist readership.

What research was involved?

University academics should always deliver out of an abundance of their academic and research ‘hearts’. And years of experience in striving to communicate clearly new and often complex concepts to one’s audience means that special effort and creativity is needed. I strived to write a book that would reflect such an approach – of course I leave readers to judge whether or not I have succeeded.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Appropriate and homely images appear throughout the book. I would write some text, realise it needed an image and writing would cease until I had obtained what I considered to be an appropriate image or illustration. Around 80% of the almost 150 images in the book are of my own making or composition. So, the development of the text was very much a parallel process – the text grew as the images grew. Plenty of inspiration came from simply leaving my writing desk and doing other things such as gardening or tackling odd tasks around the home – mentally non-demanding activities provided plenty of creative space for new ideas and approaches.

What did you enjoy the most about writing The Secret Life of Number 8?

The image preparation was always fun; developing a text that took a complex concept and then translating it into lay or non-technical language was always challenging but immensely satisfying. Let me share several examples: the science that describes how hugely useful properties in metallic alloys are created by blending pure metals in very specific ways is highly complex. However, being an obsessive, manual dishwasher I was able to exploit the analogy of how washed items are best stacked on the sink rack so as to accommodate a wide variety of shapes and sizes. When discussing plastic-based materials or polymers, my models of long and short stranded cooked spaghetti came into their own image-wise, and lots of fun in capturing appropriate images to illustrate all manner of characteristics. I use images drawn from how a caterpillar moves, how the massively heavy concrete barriers on the Auckland harbour bridge are physically relocated, and how a carpet layer makes precise adjustments to the position of a heavy body carpet, to explain the important property of ductility in crystalline materials. It was also satisfying to begin my story with what is probably one of the most unappealing images ever to be included in a text on the science of materials– a shabby fragment of heavily rusted Number 8 fencing wire. Who in their right mind would dare to begin a book using such an uninspiring image. However, I was able to use this same relic to give the text an important thematic unity. I also enjoyed tapping into the Number 8 wire idea as a distinctly Kiwi metaphor, one portraying the innovative, creative spirit that empowered so many of our forebears. I have a special opening emphasis on the life and aviation achievements of that remarkable early 20th century Kiwi inventor Richard Pearse – a true giant in the mould of the Number 8 spirit.

One last comment in response to the above question: it was a joy to work with the professional and wonderfully helpful editorial team at Mary Egan Publishing.

Who will enjoy this book?

Quite simply anyone who is curious about why quite ordinary, commonplace materials possess characteristics that are so useful to us in daily living.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I went quiet. Whether readers might or might not be receptive is always a daunting prospect.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. I love the freedom of language that Dickens uses and his ability to break all the conventions of literary construction and still tell a story of immense feeling.

Mary Egan Publishing


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