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Rust: The Longest War, by Jonathan Waldman

Rust: the longest war

Hardcover: 304 pages Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 10, 2015) ISBN-10: 1451691599 ISBN-13: 978-1451691597

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis and other dramatic natural disasters can leave mounds of wreckage in a matter of seconds. Rust is different. It is insidious and slow-moving. It takes years for it to discolor buildings, thin steel pipelines and tankers carrying oil, and weaken bridges to the point of spontaneous collapse. According to Jonathan Waldman, whose book on this far-reaching subject carries the unassuming, monosyllabic title, “Rust,” the oxidation that turns aluminum white, copper green and steel brown, “is costlier than all other natural disasters combined,” amounting in the U.S. alone to $437 billion a year, which approaches 3% of our nation’s gross domestic product. By comparison, the damage done to property by hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Andrew was, in 2012 dollars, $128 billion, $50 billion and $44 billion, respectively. (reference)

It has been called “the great destroyer” and “the evil.” The Pentagon refers to it as “the pervasive menace.” It destroys cars, fells bridges, sinks ships, sparks house fires, and nearly brought down the Statue of Liberty. In this thrilling drama of man versus nature, journalist Jonathan Waldman travels from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to meet the colorful and often reclusive people who are fighting our mightiest and unlikeliest enemy. He sneaks into an abandoned steelworks with a brave artist, and then he nearly gets kicked out of Ball Corporation’s Can School. Across the Arctic, he follows a massive high-tech robot that hunts for rust in the Alaska pipeline. On a Florida film set he meets the Defense Department’s rust ambassador, who reveals that the navy’s number one foe isn’t a foreign country but oxidation itself.

At Home Depot’s mother ship in Atlanta, he hunts unsuccessfully for rust products with the store’s rust-products buyer—and then tracks down some snake-oil salesmen whose potions are not for sale at the Rust Store. Along the way, Waldman encounters flying pigs, Trekkies, decapitations, exploding Coke cans, rust boogers, and nerdy superheroes. The result is a fresh and often funny account of an overlooked engineering endeavor that is as compelling as it is grand, illuminating a hidden phenomenon that shapes the modern world.

Rust affects everything from the design of our currency to the composition of our tap water, and it will determine the legacy we leave on this planet. This exploration of corrosion, and the incredible lengths we go to fight it, is narrative nonfiction at its very best—a fascinating and important subject, delivered with energy and wit.