Look around you. Wherever you are now – in your room, at your favourite coffee shop – look around you and identify different objects. Coffee mug, shoe, these are pretty easy. Next up: identify some materials. This is a random question right? But there is so much STUFF around you, and it is exactly this STUFF that Mark Miodownik writes about in Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World.
Stuff Matters is a book about the study of materials and it is also hands-down the most fun and interesting sciency book I have ever read. I liked science in high school – particularly chemistry – and I had a great teacher who made the class fun. But I wish I had read this book then, because perhaps it would have made Chemistry dear to me, rather than a stepping-stone to Med School admission.
Miodownik identifies ten materials – steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain and implants – and then he explodes them like 3D drawings. He starts with the basics: what the material is and how it is composed. But then he goes deeper. He explores the material’s history, which makes this part-history book – and I LOVE history. And then he explores the future of the material. Think self-healing, self-cleaning concrete; think graphene, the strongest material on Earth which may well give rise to the Space Elevator; think electronic paper and 3D-printed organs.
This was why I loved this book: it puts materials into perspective. It makes science the centre of our world, rather than a difficult subject select students choose to study.
I also found the book was well-written. It is written at a level that is understandable but not patriarchal, if that makes any sense. You don’t get the idea that Miodownik is lecturing to his readers – rather, you get the idea he is having dinner with you and telling you about something he finds truly fascinating, and then he transfers that fascination onto you.
The author even experiments with some alternative writing styles. I can’t say that the paper-chapter really did it for me, it seemed a bit disjointed. The plastic chapter, however, was written as a screenplay, and I thought it was fantastically done. The foam chapter was probably the most challenging chapter for me on an intellectual level, but it was great to get through it and actually understand something.
I was most surprised to find sentiment in this book. Miodownik truly loves his subject and sometimes it is quite entertaining how sentimental he gets about it. For example, he describes unbaked porcelain teacups as “fragile and wet, with almost no strength, like premature babies.” I have never heard a scientist wax so poetic about his subject, and I must say I like it.
Some questions that are answered in this book include:
- Why can a paperclip bend without breaking?
- Why don’t you taste your cutlery?
- Why does paper yellow with time? (Book lovers, this one is for you!)
- How is money paper different from other paper?
- Why is chocolate a material? (I liked this one.)
- Why can’t you get a suntan through glass?
- Why does titanium work so well in the human body?
I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in chemistry, history and our modern world – be you student or be you all-grown-up.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way changed my opinion.