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See Inside September 2005

Everything That Isn't Nature

A tour of the structures that make up our everyday environment
Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscap


Field guides to nature abound, and they are invaluable for pinning down the name of a songbird or hawk that flashes by. Now a veteran science writer has crisscrossed the U.S. photographing and writing a different sort of vade mecum, one to the built environment--the electric-power substations and cargo cranes, cell phone towers, tank farms and derricks that show themselves on highways and country roads, unsung structures as much in need of identification and explanation as any bird.

In the original, highly readable Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, Brian Hayes adapts the form of the field guide to "everything that isn't nature," as he writes. "There can be just as much of interest happening on a factory rooftop as there is in the forest canopy." The book seeks not just to identify common sights of the technological landscape but to explain how these sights fit together, starting with raw materials like coal, water and food, moving through interconnecting networks like roadways and the electric-power grid, and ending with what he calls the nether end of the industrial economy, waste disposal. "You might as well get to know what it's called and what it does," he writes of this landscape. "It's all around you.... If you would pull off the highway to admire a mountain vista ... you might also consider pausing for a mine or a power plant."

Camera in hand, Hayes spent 1992 to 2004 compiling much of the material for the book, supported in part by the Sloan Foundation's program on public understanding of technology. A technophile, he hopes to change some common attitudes toward the industrial landscape--"In the presence of nature we hold our breath ... in the presence of industry we hold our nose," he writes. He undertakes this task partly through hundreds of photographs taken from airplanes, cars, and the public side of many a chain-link fence, partly through the direct, accessible prose of a man who appreciates the history, engineering, and aesthetics of such wonders as barn hay hoods, grain elevators, oil pipelines, and the ventilation towers of the Holland Tunnel.

Should we never get to some of these sights ourselves--and tours are harder to find since September 11, because authorities have discontinued public access to dams, reservoirs and other installations--Hayes brings us along for a closer look at many of them. Down sewer manholes: "Sounds were deadened. The fragrance was strong but not overpowering." And into the generator gallery of a hydroelectric plant: "The noises are all low notes--hums, buzzes, groanings, rhythmic vibrations that you feel rather than hear." Inside a concrete dam, he describes "a network of galleries and shafts rather like the secret passageways of an Egyptian pyramid."

Along country roads, Hayes explores all the technological sights, from tractors and combines to the history and design of the once dominant technology for enclosing animals, barbed wire: "As light as air. Stronger than whisky. Cheaper than dust," as one of its early proponents described it. The wire was typically stapled to wood posts, but Hayes found a spot in Kansas where wood was in such short supply that posts were carved of limestone, a sight he immediately photographed, of course.

The book is studded with explanations of common but uncelebrated objects--those dumbbells that hang from the undersides of power conductors (to absorb wind-induced vibration); the odd holes in barns (for owls invited in to eat the mice); and the colorful globes on power transmission lines that cross rivers (to alert pilots of tall-masted boats and low-flying aircraft). He explains why the concrete-making truck you are following is turning clockwise briskly (to mix the concrete) or slowly (to keep the aggregate from settling out) and why the plume erupting from the smokestack at the sugar mill isn't menacing (it's water vapor).

Hayes takes on the inevitable thicket of specialized terminology gracefully, adding comparisons to make new terms and processes understandable. A style of floodgates works "like a rolltop desk"; bricks are "sliced from an extruded ribbon of clay by a fine wire, like a cheese cutter." He helps readers appreciate the scale of objects in photographs--for example, the vast machinery of strip mining--by including a nearby object such as a school bus, a car or a Porta Potti. The book ends with an extensive list for further reading, flagged with the word KIDS for younger readers and GEEKS for material more suitable for enthusiasts.

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