Rust: The Longest War
By Jonathan Waldman
(Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $10.25 – Amazon)
Rust seems an unlikely topic for a book, for as Jonathan Waldman puts it: “Like a condition between high cholesterol and hemorrhoids, rust is a nuisance that we would prefer not to deal with, and certainly not talk about in public.” Somehow, despite costing an estimated $437 billion annually in the US alone, “rust sneaks below the radar.” No longer. Waldman, a science and environmental journalist, chronicles the efforts of photographers, government bureaucrats, mustachioed corrosion engineers, Star-Trek aficionados, and soda-pop designers to bring rust out from the grimiest corners of your mind to a place front and center. After reading through his (shockingly) spellbinding chapters on tomato sauce cans and pipelines, you’ll agree that Waldman and his heroes have succeeded. You will realize that there is no more dangerous “pervasive menace,” nor powerful force connecting all things, than Waldman’s simple title: Rust.
What is rust? Rust is helpfully placed in the corrosion family, as the family’s best known member. Rust is the corrosion of iron materials (usually steel). The characteristic rust color is entirely the result of iron, but corrosion includes the greenish stain on copper, the black spots on silver and the white powder that accumulates on aluminum. The corrosion family itself sits within the tribe of oxidation reactions, which also includes explosions and cellular respiration. Oxidation reactions don’t have to be set off with a match or fed; the mere contact between iron and oxygen is impelled by fundamental chemistry to result in rust. In short, iron wants oxygen, and oxygen wants iron. It’s almost romantic… except oxygen also wants every other element in the periodic table save Fluorine. The same oxygen we breathe is responsible for the shimmering beauty of fireworks and the unsightly stains running down your neighbor’s siding: both are the result of oxidation reactions happening at very different speeds. Waldman makes an elegant point that everything in the world is literally burning.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why rust would be a “real and present danger.” Technically rust is only the corrosion of iron, but colloquially it’s cited as the cause whenever things fall apart. Rust is the culprit responsible for bridge collapses, aircraft falling out of the sky, and toxic chemical spills, even if the essential metal parts that rusted away weren’t made of steel. Rust kills people. It eats away at the complex machinery undergirding our modern life, leaving us tumbling into the abyss. Rust is unpredictable. The speed of oxidation can be dramatically increased by moisture, salty sea-air, or unexpected physical contact with other materials. In one section of a multi-billion dollar pipeline, extreme rust was a result of local rocks being sharper than the assumed gravel underlaying the entire pipeline. In short, like “a defiant and dangerous enemy,” rust always strikes where it has the element of surprise.
Given that rust is such a problem, naïvely one could ask why we just don’t get rid of it? Yes, rust is a powerful physical force, but we’ve dammed rivers and travelled to the moon! In a fascinating chapter on the invention of stainless steel by Harry Brearley, we see that this radical thought would have been unthinkable just 100 years ago. Before the invention (and manufacturing and marketing) of stainless steel in 1915, the perfect spaghetti marinara would leave knives and forks discolored and stained. Washing only made the problem worse. The cause was acid, one among many other delicious compounds in the tomato sauce, reacting with the iron in the cutlery. There was no way to prevent it, and the only solution was for waiters, dishwashers and housewives to constantly polish every table piece after every meal. That eternal truth that iron rusts was enshrined in religion: “Trouble is to man what rust is to iron.” The discovery of stainless steel overturned this truth, and was rightly heralded as marvel of the modern world.
Discoveries have quickened since. Novel alloys, galvanization with zinc, various coatings and wraps and paints, among a-million-and-one other inventions, have sought to prevent the inevitable result of oxygen touching iron. But paint chips and coatings warp, exposing the steel underneath, and alloys merely slow the ceaseless work of oxidation. From the perspective of omnipresent oxidation, the ENTIRE maintenance department is engaged in a rearguard action against rust. I remember from my childhood hearing that the painters of the Golden Gate had great job security: as soon as they reached the end of the bridge, it was time to start back at the beginning. The wind, the wet, and the salt-air would rot the bridge if even a single speck was left unprotected by paint.
But at least the Golden Gate was not actually submerged in the ocean. The Navy has bigger problems, hundreds of them actually. With ships, again paint is key. Waldman quotes a naval ditty to the effect that a ship is a way to move the paint and weapons are there to protect the paint. The US Navy proves that it’s an organizations procedures in response to rust which define its effectiveness, no matter how big or small.
Here we find Waldman’s thesis: we shouldn’t just have procedural responses to rust. We should be pro-active. Billions of dollars can be saved by forethought and planning. Yes, galvanized beams cost 10% more, but they last twice as long! Billions more can be saved by thorough inspections. Checking now that an ounce of prevention is still working can save tons of cure later. The last few billion can be saved via rust management. Metrics can be defined for quantitatively assessing rust, the potential risks posed by rust, and the cost of those rust risks. This approach is summed up nicely by considering the aged gentleman who, sparing no expense, gets a coated, galvanized and chromed stainless steel replacement for a failing sphincter. In 10,000 years future archaeologists dig up his grave but find nothing but a pristine metal asshole. Do we really need the vast expense of a world without rust?
Waldman succeeds admirably in putting real characters in fascinating stories. That the characters are engineers and stories are about rust add tremendously to his achievement. If he wrote a sequel about watching paint dry, I’d buy it. That said, two quibbles.
1) It’s clear that while Waldman is a science journalist, he’s not a scientist. In an atom, he says electrons are “orbiting its neutrons,” which is true, but only incidentally. The entire periodic table of elements is structured around an atom’s proton count, and it’s the positive electric charge of the protons that attract and bind an atom’s negatively charged electrons. Maybe a typo, “neutrons” should have been “nucleus.”
Worse, when Waldman is explaining why most metals in nature are found in their already rusted (oxidized) forms, he states that “oxygen did not accumulate in the atmosphere for billions of years, until rocks on the surface had reached their fill.” This is false, and worse, misses the far grander truth that it was the chemical processes of life that created a vast atmosphere of 21% oxygen. The rocks of Earth had absorbed any available free oxygen back when they were mere dust grains floating in an interstellar cloud, and every atmospheric oxygen atom we see today was pried from those rocks by sheer force of will. The existential scarcity of free oxygen means that finding it in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would be the smoking gun for extraterrestrial life.
2) The writing style is list-heavy. Because rust (or more generally, corrosion) is everywhere, lists, lists, lists and more lists, lists upon lists, and lists of lists can be made of the consequences of rust. And these lists are made often. Indeed, the very structure of the book is a list of episodes. An uncharitable summary would be: Rust in the Statue of Liberty, Rust in Soda Cans, Rust in Pipelines, etc., etc. Perhaps it’s the proliferation of list-icles in today’s journalism that leads to this writing style and structure.
However, I get the feeling Waldman would cheerfully admit to not being a trained scientist, and I trust him to have pursued the story wherever it may lead, faithfully reporting any details he discovered. As an example: we go through almost 30 pages investigating the inconceivably vast process by which Mountain Dew is prevented from rusting out of its can. Then we get an Erin Brockovich-style awareness raising about the dangers of Biphenol-A present in the coatings of said cans. This is the type of tale which brings joy to the heart of every environmental journalist, but Waldman was able to be fully invested in describing the mechanical marvel of a 99-cent soda can before getting to the conclusion that satisfies him.
To conclude, I recommend this book for anyone. As a journalist Waldman has written an approachable book full of interesting characters and enlightening stories. I would especially recommend this book for a curious person, since I guarantee no one has thought about rust from even two of the different perspectives presented in the book.