Book review: Wind Wizard, by Siobhan Roberts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:30pm

Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering

by Siobhan Roberts

Princeton University Press

This book suffers from an identity crisis: it is marketed as "popular science" but its subject means much of the book is given over to scientific discussions of natural phenomenon and engineering theory.

Siobhan Roberts tries to keep her scientific expositions simple and straightforward, but a thorough glossary, lots of pictures, graphs, charts and explanatory inserts throughout the text can't save significant sections of the book from being difficult to follow and, more troubling, uninteresting for laymen.

Roberts also seems unsure whether her book is a biography or an introduction to wind engineering. She covers aspects of Alan Davenport's early life, and mentions his family often, but his biography has large and obvious gaps. No mention is made of his struggle with Parkinson's disease or, most bizarrely, his death in 2009.

It begins and ends seemingly in mid-thought, leaving the reader disoriented and racing to keep up. The slow and scattered start does give way to a more engaging midsection. The chapter on modern skyscrapers is especially entertaining. Stories relating to the Hancock and the Citicorp towers are truly fascinating and often make for "edge-of-your-seat" reads.

A later section on preparing for disasters in developing economies gives the book a nice narrative arch: Davenport as revolutionary wind-engineering maverick turned humanitarian crusader.

In two important ways Roberts succeeds: she makes wind engineering - mostly - interesting, spelling out a real case for its importance; and she paints a clear picture of Davenport's character. Her affection for her subject is as obvious as it is contagious. But the more we come to like Davenport the more frustrating it becomes that we learn so little about his private motivations and his personal life.

Wind Wizard is an obviously well-researched endeavour and Roberts' considerable knowledge comes through on every page. However, whether through an over-reliance on complicated hard science or her affection for rhetorical flourishes that do more to confuse than entertain, the freelance science journalist is not always able to convey her obvious passion and knowledge to the reader.

What emerges is a profile of a very gifted and very nice man, and an in-depth account of the evolution of wind engineering in the past half-century. Whether that is enough to keep the attention of typical readers of popular science is, like so much in Wind Wizard, unclear.