Rust: The Longest War

Jonathan Waldman

Simon and Schuster, 304 pages, $26.95


There is a hallowed tradition in science writing, going back at least to John McPhee’s early career, of choosing a seemingly drab subject and making it pop through simple, stubborn attention to personality and detail. It’s a generous impulse, born of curiosity and a belief that anything is fascinating if only you study it from the right angles. It doesn’t hurt, either, that so many of these books in this category sound like ingredients at a farm-to-table cafe: “Oranges,” “Cod,” “Salt.” Jonathan Waldman’s first book, “Rust,” sounds like a building code violation. But don’t let that fool you. This look at corrosion — its causes, its consequences and the people devoted to combating it — is wide-ranging and consistently engrossing. Waldman makes rust shine. To a large extent, that’s because he concentrates less on corrosion itself than on the eccentric brotherhood of engineers and bureaucrats who fight it. In this, he may have had little choice. The basic science of rust — technically, the chemical interaction between oxygen and iron, although Waldman tends to apply the word more colloquially to the oxidation of any metal — is so simple it takes up just six pages in “Rust.” But the risks it poses to an industrialized society are legion. It has shut down bridges, the nation’s largest pipeline. It’s a threat to the Navy, skyscrapers and safe drinking water. Plus, it costs the U.S. $437 billion a year, more than “all other natural disasters combined.”