Reviewed by Annabel
In his 2013 book Stuff Matters which I reviewed for Shiny here, materials science professor Miodownik took us on a tour around some of the most important man-made materials that have shaped our lives: from steel to chocolate via paper and concrete – all featuring in a picture of the author reading on his roof terrace. In that book he proved to be adept at explaining the complexities of how materials work in an understandable and always entertaining way, full of anecdotes, history and the stories behind his subjects. It won him the Royal Society Winton Prize (now the RS Science Book Prize).
Stuff Matters was about solid materials; his new book does the same, obviously, for liquids. This time, as a linking concept, Miodownik takes us on a journey with him as he flies across the Atlantic by plane. As he travels, he looks at all the different liquids that he encounters on the way – ‘the delightful and dangerous substances that flow through our lives’.
Each of the thirteen liquids examined is described in the chapter heading by its primary property, but first, in the introduction he defines the essential property they all share:
…Liquids don’t have a shape. They just take the form of whatever is containing them. […]
When they’re not contained, they are always on the move, seeping, corroding, dripping and escaping our control.
But how can you tell liquids apart? Imagine we’re in the departure lounge going through security, and the bottle of water you forgot in your bag is confiscated. The problem is that so many liquids have a similar appearance, so that identification of liquids requires complex techniques and time, unlike solids which can reveal their purpose when x-rayed. Hydrofluoric acid is transparent and colourless – yet this strong acid used in etching metals in the lab, is ‘a contact poison that interferes with nerve function. … you can’t feel the acid as it’s burning you.’ Nitroglycerine contains the same elements as peanut butter, ‘yet one is a liquid explosive while the other is just, well delicious.’
Strapped in and ready for take-off, as the cabin crew give the safety briefing, Miodownik muses that the plane is full of aviation fuel, kerosene, another colourless, transparent liquid that unleashes the energy needed to get the plane off the ground. He compares different oils used as fuels through the ages, from the smoky olive oil lamps used by ancient civilisations, to the less viscous whale oils used in the 1700s until a Scottish chemist called James Young extracted paraffin from coal. He also introduces us to Susan, the passenger reading in the adjacent seat, who will be a silent partner for most of his journey.
The drinks trolley arrives, and alcohol, followed by water become the next liquids encountered and analysed, before Miodownik’s attention turns to how the aeroplane is stuck together with liquid glue, followed by considering the liquid crystals in the in-flight entertainment screens.
He dozes and drools a little! Miodownik never minds making himself the butt of a joke. Will his salivary glands water similarly once the food trays arrive? He turns inwards to consider the bodily fluid that help us eat. The next chapter heralds the arrival of the attendant with the coffee pot and a discussion of why hot drinks brewed at the plane’s lower air pressure don’t taste right.
From the liquid soap in the toilets to the ink in his biro and the plane’s air-conditioning, Miodownik continues to tell us stories about the liquids he encounters while sneaking lots of fascinating science bits into the text. All too soon, it’s time to begin the descent, and we go through the wet clouds, which the Russians used to seed with chemicals to make it rain, so the weather for the May Day parade should be dry, he tells us, before landing on the tarmac, which is sealed with liquid tar, allowing a certain amount of self-healing of the road surface.
Miodownik’s geniality and enthusiasm for his subject shine through, and as a materials scientist myself (admittedly I’ve forgotten more than I can remember), I was completely immersed in his liquid journey, learning and remembering, but most of all enjoying the ride. The stories bring all the fascinating facts to life, and his knack for clear and simple explanations make this a popular science book that will appeal to a wide audience. Indeed, it has been shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Science Book Prize too.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Mark Miodownik, Liquid (Penguin Viking, 2018). 978-0241977293, 288pp., hardback.
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