The story behind the story
I recall two specific events during my graduate school days in 66 Building, home of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering. The first was a 5th-floor hallway conversation I had with Professor Preetinder Virk in which I asked him why a certain physical phenomenon happened the way that it did. Professor Virk replied, to the best of my recall, “Ah, that is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To connect the micro with the macro!” The second was in Professor Charles Cooney’s classroom. He was working through one of his assigned homework problems and said, again to the best of my recall, “The way to approach this problem is to first picture yourself as the molecule. What do you see?” The memories of both events remained deep inside a folder in my mind for many years until a third event opened them back up. I was sitting in my office at Mobil Oil’s R&D Center, this time in 50 Building, having just calculated the temperature rise of a gas undergoing adiabatic compression. I leaned back and for the first time ever asked myself, “Why exactly does the temperature rise?” This single question became the seed around which many other questions, discussions, ideas, and MIT experiences crystallized. And it was this single question that led me on a 20-year journey of discovery in the world of thermodynamics, a journey that culminated in the publishing of my book, Block by Block – The Historical and Theoretical Foundations of Thermodynamics. This book is now available from both Amazon and Oxford University Press.
The effort behind this book was not complicated. Daily persistence. Read, read some more, re-read, again and again—especially the work of J. Willard Gibbs!—think, and finally generate my own insights. I then decided what information I wanted to share, how best to connect that information, and what organizational structure I wanted to use. As for the writing itself, I thought it best to simply write the way I spoke. I came to view much of this material as a sequence of linked stories that called for a conversational format, like the one I’m using right now.
The thermodynamic concepts I encountered required deep dives into technical details. I wanted to add another way into this material by creating original conceptual illustrations. I’m a strong believer in the use of illustrations to display and transmit information, having been inspired by a one-day course I took with Edward Tufte based on his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The problem in front of me was that while I knew what I wanted to draw, I didn’t have the skill set to actually do the drawings. I shared this problem with an old college friend, and he said, “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine.” And that’s what led me to Carly Sanker, a wonderful artist who converted my ideas into the beautiful cover of Block by Block and the 32 illustrations contained inside. Let me now turn things over to Carly, in her own words:
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Thank you, Bob! I’d like to take us back to when Bob first called me in March of 2018. I was living in San Francisco and for about two hours I stared out at the bay, pacing back and forth, looking out at the water, listening and talking, but mostly listening.
He explained his reasoning and the research that went into his book and he walked me through his vision for the illustrations—some of which he said had never been created. I was as excited as I was intimidated. Thermodynamics is so complex, it almost seems out of reach, I thought. Actually, he corrected me—it’s so complex that most experts with their PhDs in physics still struggle to truly understand the foundational concepts—so don’t feel bad. Now that blew my mind. Suddenly the problem seemed approachable: it wasn’t an information problem, it was a communication problem. The solution was already there, we just had to reveal it. I could handle that.
I dove in and Bob threw me a lifesaver. I was able to understand some of the simpler concepts touched on in the book from my high school physics career, but in the end I would require an on-site Professor Hanlon three-day “crash course” on thermodynamics—if you can imagine such a thing—in a shared workspace on Miami Beach of all places. It seemed like a lot to take on, because it was—but the secret to success was our focus on removing the tangential and revealing the essential. We would spend the following year creating, reviewing, simplifying and revising every illustration until for the umpteenth time we both said “ok, I think we’re actually really, finally done this time.”
And the rest was theoretically, history!
And that’s the story behind the story. For a different behind-the-scenes look at how I came to write Block by Block, check out the video in this post.