ALD23 Books: Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World (in a Big Way), Roma Agrawal

Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World (in a Big Way), Roma Agrawal

Smartphones, skyscrapers, spacecraft. Modern technology seems mind-bogglingly complex. But beneath the surface, it can be beautifully simple.

In Nuts and Bolts, award-winning Shard engineer and broadcaster Roma Agrawal deconstructs our most complex feats of engineering into seven fundamental inventions: the nail, spring, wheel, lens, magnet, string and pump.

Each of these objects is itself a wonder of design, the result of many iterations and refinements. Together, they have enabled humanity to see the invisible, build the spectacular, communicate across vast distances, and even escape our planet.
Tracing the surprising journeys of each invention through the millennia, Roma reveals how handmade Roman nails led to modern skyscrapers, how the potter’s wheel enabled space exploration, and how humble lenses helped her conceive a child against the odds.

She invites us to marvel at these small but perfectly formed inventions, sharing the stories of the remarkable, and often unknown, scientists and engineers who made them possible. The nuts and bolts that make up our world may be tiny, and are often hidden, but they’ve changed our lives in dramatic ways.

Order the book on

Hear Roma Agrawal talk about her book on BBC Sounds.

Read more about the book in The Guardian.

About the author

Roma Agrawal MBE FICE HonFREng, is an Indian-British-American chartered structural engineer based in London who attributes her enthusiasm for engineering to a love of making (and breaking) things as a child.

She has worked on several major engineering projects, including The Shard, and says her entry into engineering started with a summer placement at Oxford University’s Department of Physics, where she worked alongside engineers designing particle detectors for CERN.

In 2005, Agrawal joined WSP for a graduate programme, eventually becoming a chartered engineer with The Institution of Structural Engineers in 2011. She spent six years working on the tallest building in Western Europe (The Shard), designing the foundations and the iconic spire – something she describes as a career highlight: “I think projects like that only come once or twice in your career, so I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on this.” The 1,016-ft (310 m) tall structure required a top-down construction methodology, which had never been done before on a building of this scale, requiring the spire to be of modular construction – it had to be built and tested off-site, enabling quick and safe assembly at its current height in central London.

Agrawal is also an author and a diversity campaigner who champions women in engineering. Following her years working on The Shard, Agrawal found herself presenting her work to children at schools and students at universities, igniting a personal passion for raising awareness of engineering. She has since presented to over 15,000 people worldwide.

You can follow Roma Agrawal’s work here:

Twitter: @RomaTheEngineer
Instagram: @romatheengineer
YouTube: Roma Agrawal – YouTube

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Professor Rajeshwari Chatterjee, Engineer

Professor Rajeshwari Chatterjee

Professor Rajeshwari Chatterjee was an Indian scientist, educator and the first female engineer from the state of Karnataka. A professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, she was among the first Indian scientists to research microwave engineering, focusing mostly on passive microwave devices.

Chatterjee was born on 24 January 1922 in Karnataka, southwest India. Her grandmother was a university graduate and social activist who advocated for women’s education, and encouraged the young Chatterjee to pursue her studies. After a degree in mathematics from Central College of Bangalore, Chatterjee set out to join the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) as a research scholar in 1943.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was no easy task. Senior figures at the institute were well-known for their aversion to female students and Chatterjee was initially rejected – supposedly due to her lack of a physics degree, possibly because of her gender. Undeterred, she eventually persuaded IISc to accept her as a research student in communication engineering. She spent several years in the lab at the IISc, working on electronics research and specialising in ultra-high frequency measurements.

When World War Two came to an end, with India on the cusp of independence, Chatterjee got the chance to take her career to the next level. The government in Delhi was offering scholarships for bright Indian students to study abroad and she seized the opportunity, moving to the US to study at the University of Michigan in 1947.

After obtaining a master’s degree in electrical engineering in the US, Chatterjee completed her PhD at the University of Michigan in 1953, aged 31. Her supervisor was Professor William Gould Dow, a pioneer in electrical engineering who had helped develop life-saving radar jamming technology during the war.

A return to India, and to the IISc, followed. Chatterjee became a faculty member at the institute’s Department of Electrical Communication Engineering (ECE), making her its first female engineer. In later life, she became the department chairperson.

In the early 1950s, Chatterjee started building India’s first microwave engineering research lab with her husband, her fellow scientist and colleague Sisir Kumar Chatterjee. Microwave research was still in its infancy, and Chatterjee focused mostly on guided and radiated wave devices. Together, the Chatterjees developed courses in microwave technology and satellite communication, and were the first to teach this subject in India in the 1960s. Her research helped shape developments in aircraft and spacecraft antennae and is still considered relevant today, particularly in the fields of defence and radar technology.

Chatterjee retired from the IISc in 1982. Over a career spanning more than 30 years, she wrote over 100 research papers and seven books, including Elements of Microwave Engineering and her autobiography A Thousand Streams. She died on 3 September 2010, aged 88.

Her awards included the J.C. Bose Memorial prize for the best research paper from the Institution of Engineers, India, as well as the Ramlal Wadhwa Award for the best research and teaching work from the Institute of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers, India.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Dr Tasneem Zehra Husain, Physicist

Dr Tasneem Zehra Husain

Dr Tasneem Zehra Husain is a theoretical physicist, science writer, educator and the first Pakistani woman to earn a PhD in string theory. She is a staunch advocate for science and technology in Pakistan, and works to make physics accessible to general audiences.

Husain studied mathematics and physics at Kinnaird College in her home city of Lahore, undertaking her master’s degree in physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. She relocated to Sweden for a doctorate in theoretical physics at Stockholm University, obtaining her PhD in string theory in 2003 – the first Pakistani woman ever to do so.

After completing her PhD, Husain moved to Harvard University in the US for a two-year postdoctoral research position. During that time, she helped establish a School of Science and Engineering at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, taking up a faculty position there after leaving Harvard. She has also taught mathematics and physics at her alma mater, Kinnaird College.

From the moment she first heard of string theory, Husain has said she was “fascinated by the idea that all the rich diversity of matter and forces in our universe could be manifested by the flutters and oscillations of infinitesimal strings”. Her research has focused on better understanding 11-dimensional space-time and M-Theory. She also works to make theoretical physics more accessible – a mission she sees as particularly important at a time when the relationship between scientists and the public can be distrustful.

Although she is now based in the US, Husain still works to support science and STEM education in Pakistan. She designed Pakistan’s logo for the World Year of Physics (WYP) in 2005, helped train Pakistan’s physics team for an International Physics Olympiad and represented Pakistan at the Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany.

Beyond research, her work has focused on science writing and public speaking. Husain has said that her teachers’ “dry” approach to physics in school made it harder for her to pursue a scientific career. As a result, she strives to demystify theoretical physics for people who aren’t scientists and inspire young people to pursue scientific education and careers. She gives regular talks on string theory and physics for mainstream audiences, delivers presentations to high school and college students, and runs workshops for science teachers and government officials. She has also conducted writing workshops for scientists to help them communicate their ideas, including a series at CERN.

In 2014, Husain published her first novel, Only the Longest Threads, about pivotal historical moments when new physics theories shaped people’s understanding of the universe. She has said she hopes the book will illuminate what can seem like the “abstract” work” of theoretical physicists “to people who lack a mathematical background but are genuinely curious”.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @tasneemzhusain

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23 Books: Can You Get Rainbows in Space? A Colourful Compendium of Space and Science, Sheila Kanani (author) and Liz Kay (illustrator)

Can You Get Rainbows in Space? A Colourful Compendium of Space and Science, Sheila Kanani and Liz Kay

Can you get rainbows in space? Good question! Dr Sheila Kanani explores this and many more questions in this incredible collection of scientific facts about colour. Beautifully and brightly coloured throughout by illustrator Liz Kay, this irresistible book is a cornucopia of fascinating information. Why is blood red but your veins look blue? Why are carrots orange? Why is the world ‘going green’? Is the sky really blue? What is ultraviolet light? There’s so much to discover!

Starting with the most important thing – light – Sheila Kanani explores what light actually is and how it is perceived by the human eye. Dancing through the colours of the rainbow (and beyond, through black, white, fluorescence, infrared and ultraviolet), each section explains how we see that particular colour and explores nature linked to it, including how some animals can see in the dark. Best of all, you’ll learn exactly how to make a rainbow – in space!

Designed to get young scientists excited about outer space as well as the Earth they live on, this vibrant book packed with exquisite illustrations will draw in readers from as young as 7, but adults alike are sure to find themselves wowed by some fascinating facts.

Did you know overripe bananas glow indigo under ultraviolet light? Did you know hippos have red sweat? Did you know when you mix green and red light they make yellow light? Let’s find out!

Order the book on

About the author

Dr Sheila Kanani MBE is a British astronomer and is the Education, Outreach and Diversity Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society and is dedicated to improving the representation of girls and women in physics. 

In 2014 she won the Inspiring Women in Technology award, and also won the Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement with Planetary Science in 2020. She continues to identify new ways to make astronomy and physics accessible to underrepresented communities. She has written a series of books about exceptional female leaders as part of The Extraordinary Life Of… series, including Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart and Michelle Obama. She also dives further into space exploration with her book How to be an Astronaut and Other Space Jobs, with her latest release Can You Get Jellyfish in Space? coming in 2024.

Dr Kanani was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2022 New Year’s Honours List for services to astronomy and to diversity in physics.

You can follow Sheila Kanani’s work here:

Twitter: @saturnsheila
LinkedIn: Dr Sheila Kanani MBE

About the illustrator

Liz Kay is a Yorkshire based illustrator who has worked on a variety of commissions across illustrated maps, hand lettering & calligraphy, greetings cards, infographics, children’s books, newspapers & magazines, animation, murals, personalised illustrations & wedding stationery. 

Liz has provided illustrations for Time Out, Radio Times, Walker Books, Pearson Education, Conde Naste, Oxford University Press, Quality Chartered Institute and Lonely Planet amongst others.

You can follow Liz Kay’s work here:

Twitter: @LizKayillo

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Professor Asima Chatterjee, Chemist

Professor Asima Chatterjee

Professor Asima Chatterjee was a pioneering organic chemist and India’s first female scientist to be awarded a doctor of science degree. Her work helped develop drugs that treat epilepsy and malaria, and deepened scientific understanding of how indigenous plants – particularly those from south Asia – can be used in modern medicine. Over the course of a long career, she made notable contributions in the fields of alkaloids, terpenoids, polyphenolics, and structural and mechanistic organic chemistry.

Chatterjee was born on 23 September 1917 in Kolkata, India. Her father was a chemist, academic and amateur botanist who supported her education and encouraged her interest in the medicinal properties of plants. After completing higher studies, Chaterjee pursued a masters in organic chemistry from the University of Calcutta, graduating in 1938.

She completed her doctorate in science at the University of Calcutta, working alongside academics including Sir Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (sometimes referred to as “the father of Indian chemistry”). While pursuing her doctorate, Chatterjee joined the women-only Lady Brabourne College to establish and lead its chemistry department. She received her PhD in 1944, becoming the first woman to do so at an Indian university, and was appointed honorary lecturer in chemistry at Calcutta University.

In 1947, Chatterjee moved to the US to undertake post-doctoral research on naturally occurring glycosides and biologically active alkaloids (at the University of Wisconsin and Caltech respectively). The latter subject became one of her lifelong intellectual preoccupations. After a year studying alkaloids at the University of Zürich, she returned to India in 1950, continuing her research into biologically active compounds in medicinal plants.

Routinely struggling to secure funding for her work at the University of Calcutta, Chatterjee often poured her own money into her research. The investment paid off. She successfully developed drugs that were patented by the Indian government, notably the anti-epileptic drug Ayush-56 (which used chemicals from a species of aquatic fern) and the antimalarial medication Ayush-64, which was made from plants including the blackboard tree and swertia chirayita herb.

Chatterjee also studied cancer and anti-cancer growth drugs, investigating how alkaloids could be used in chemotherapy. One breakthrough came with her work on vinca alkaloids from the Madagascar periwinkle plant, which can help slow down some cancer cells by preventing them from duplicating.

Over the course of her career, Chatterjee published around 400 papers in national and international journals. She held the coveted post of Khaira Professor of Chemistry at the University of Calcutta from 1962 to 1982, and became the first female General President of the Indian Science Congress Association in 1975. In recognition of her outstanding contribution to science, President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy nominated her as a member of the Rajya Sabha – the upper house of the Indian parliament – in 1982.

By 2003, Chatterjee had achieved her longstanding dream of establishing an institute for the research and development of Ayurvedic medicines based on Indian plants (the Regional Research Institute in Kolkata, now the Central Ayurveda Research Institute). She died on 22 November 2006, aged 89.

Her many awards included the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science – of which she became the first female recipient in 1961 – and the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.