Sunday, April 7, 2013

How to confuse your audience

On the new books shelves at my local public library I recently saw and borrowed Eric Chaline’s 2012 book, Fifty Minerals That Changed the Course of History.  It is a very pretty book, but also a confusing one. The same things that irritated me about it also are found in informative speeches or presentations. You can learn much about both what not to do and to do from reading this book.

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s holiday guide from last December described this book as follows:

“This series, which has already featured Fifty Plants and Fifty Animals That Changed the World, has hit the nail on the head again. Fifty Minerals offers the same gorgeous design, luscious full-colour illustrations and – most important – intriguing and entertaining bits of information. Writer Eric Chaline presents dozens of elegant small essays, offbeat sidebars and captions, about everything from clay to diamonds and salt to arsenic.”

Eric begins by stating that:

“Minerals, in the broadest sense of the term, encompass a huge variety of natural and man-made materials, including metals and alloys, rocks, crystals, gemstones, organic minerals, salts and ores.”

His Table of Contents lists the fifty materials he chose to discuss:

Diamond (adamas)
Copper (aes cyprium)
Bronze (aes brundesium)
Alabaster (alabastrum)
Alum (alumen)
Aluminum (aluminum)
Asbestos (amiantos)
Amber (anbar)
Silver (argentum)
Clay (argilla)
Arsenic (arsenicum)
Asphalt (asphaltos)
Gold (aurum)
Chalk (calx)
Coal (carbo carbonis)
Coral (corallium)
Ivory (eburneus)
Slate (esclate)
Iron (ferreus)
Kaolin (galing)
Graphite (graphit)
Gypsum (gypsatus)
Mercury (hydrargyrum)
Potassium (kalium)
Marble (marmor)
Nacre (nakara)
Natron (natrium)
Obsidian (obsidianus)
Ocher (ochra)
Petroleum (petroleum)
Phosphorus (phosphorus)
Platinum (platinum)
Lead (plumbum)
Plutonium (plutonium)
Pumice (pumiceus)
Quartz (quartzeus)
Radium (radius)
Sand (sabulum)
Saltpeter (sal petrae)
Salt (salio)
Flint (silex)
Steel (stahl)
Tin (stannum)
Sulfur (sulphur)
Talc (talq)
Titanium (titanium)
Uranium (uranium)
Jade (venefica)
Tungsten (wolfram)
Zinc (zink)

Why did Diamond come first? Although he listed their English names first, Eric didn’t bother to tell readers that he’d alphabetized them by using their Greek or Latin names, which he’d listed second. You have to go to the Index at the back of the book to find them alphabetized in English.

This is a curious list. Twenty items are elements. Carbon is listed twice under two allotropes - as Diamond and Graphite. Fifteen items are metallic elements, and two others (bronze and steel are alloys). Quartz (silicon dioxide) is on the list, but Silicon (the element used to make integrated circuit chips) is not. Asphalt is included, but another very important construction material, concrete, is missing. For asphalt he incorrectly lists the formula for carbon disulfide, which will dissolve asphalt.      

Some of his stories are personal and compelling. He begins his four-page article on gypsum by describing a bicycling accident that required him to get a plaster cast put on his arm. Plaster of Paris is made by dehydrating gypsum. When it is mixed with water, it cures to form gypsum. Eric also discusses how one of the first uses of gypsum was for carving intricate ornaments and statuary. But, he only has a single-sentence figure caption saying that gypsum is the main ingredient for household plaster. Most homes built in the last fifty years have interior walls made from drywall, which is gypsum covered with heavy paper. He didn’t clearly say that the same material used for casts is also found within ten feet of us, right at home.   

Other stories are almost pointless and could have been replaced by better ones. His discussion of Titanium as a space-race metal on page 198 has a first paragraph about how the heat shield for Sputnik I contained 0.2 percent titanium - in an alloy consisting primarily of 93.8 percent aluminum with 6 percent magnesium. That paragraph logically should have appeared under Aluminum.

At the top of page 201 is an image captioned:

“TOP SECRET The U.S.’s titanium X-15 space plane.”

That image doesn’t show the very successful X-15 rocket plane, which had a titanium structure and an Inconel X nickel-alloy skin. Instead it shows another much less successful jet plane, the Douglas X-3, which never got remotely near space.    

The Lockheed YF-12 and SR-71 are the best examples of titanium aircraft. A fact sheet from the National Museum of the Air Force notes that:

“To enable the YF-12A to withstand skin temperatures of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (generated by air friction), 93 percent of its structural weight is made up of titanium alloys.”

Another fact sheet points out that:

“Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world's fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth's surface per hour. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class -- an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.”

The audience image came from Benross814 at Wilimedia Commons.

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