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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 397-399

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Book Review

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society. Edited by Rudi Volti. 3 vols. New York: Facts on File, 1999. Pp. ix+1158. $225.

Two questions that any review of a reference work must address are: What audience is this book written for? And how well does it serve that audience? We have all been frustrated by slipshod compilations of sketchy entries with all the detail of picture captions, just as we have been daunted to encounter "Assume a varying magnetic field of strength B(t)" when all we wanted was a quick explanation of how magnetic resonance imaging works. In choosing a reference work, as in choosing a mate, one looks for shared interests and a compatible level of loquacity. [End Page 397]

With this principle in mind, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society appears to be written more for a general audience with a moderate interest in STS than for scholars who specialize in the field. It would be at home in an ambitious high-school library or in a college library's reference section, where it could easily be consulted by students and faculty from all areas. Historians of technology will find it useful, to be sure, but both the depth of the individual entries and the breadth of topics covered sometimes fall short of what Technology and Culture readers would expect from a book edited with them in mind.

Just as the first thing many of us look up in a new dictionary is our favorite dirty word, the first thing I looked up in The Facts on File Encyclopedia was polywater, a mistaken 1960s "discovery" of a polymerized form of water that supposedly could have turned all the earth's oceans into a huge, viscous mass. The entry provides just the right level of detail, telling the story clearly and briskly in three hundred words. (The entry on Teflon, by contrast, makes that material sound just as chemically implausible as polywater by calling its raw material "tetrafluorine" instead of tetrafluoroethylene.)

On more familiar topics than polywater, however, the encyclopedia may be less valuable. The entry on ammonia (to select one of many) is accurate and well written and covers all the major points, yet it says little that would not be found in any other encyclopedia. This is not the fault of the writers or of Rudi Volti, the editor; it's just that in the brief space allotted, it is hard to include any small but telling details or to bring the special perspective of STS scholarship to bear on the subject. And while suggestions for further reading would have been helpful, about half the entries in the book list no such sources. Those that do provide sources usually give only one.

As for the breadth of topics covered, Volti made a conscientious and generally successful effort to be diverse. To consider just a single letter, within the Hs we find hallucinogens; harbors; history of science, internal vs. external; homogenization; horsecollar; and hovercraft, among numerous others. Yet diversity is not the same as comprehensiveness, and this encyclopedia is not as encyclopedic as it might have been. For example, while it contains separate entries on tampons and sanitary napkins as well as one on oral contraceptives, there is nothing about pregnancy or childbirth, let alone the general topic of gender. Furthermore, there are no entries on specific people or companies--an editorial decision that, while understandable, nonetheless makes this encyclopedia less broadly useful than it might have been.

While science and technology mix much better here than they do at a typical SHOT/HSS joint meeting (which isn't saying much), some of the scientific material seems oddly out of place. Will anyone reach for this book to find an explanation of chemical bonding, plate tectonics, or the Carnot cycle, able though those entries are? Especially when little effort is made to tailor them to the discipline of...


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