Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell


Good popular science books don’t come along that often, and when they do, they’re inevitably about four topics it seems: quantum physics, space, genetics or the periodic table.  Hoorah for one that’s different.  Double hoorah for it being all about materials science – which is what I studied at university.  For those who aren’t sure what materials science is – it’s all about understanding and engineering materials by studying their properties at the microscopic end of the scale to influence how they work at the macroscopic end; blending physics, chemistry and engineering. 

Mark Miodownik, whom some of you may recognise from his regular TV appearances on programmes like Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBC2 or the 2010 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, like me (!), is a materials scientist. Unlike me, he’s a practising one, currently being Professor of the subject at UCL in London.  In this book, published last year, and now available in paperback with this gorgeous cover, he wants to persuade us that Stuff Matters

In this book, Miodownik takes ten man-made materials, and explains their history – how they were discovered and developed, how and why they work, he also looks forward to new uses. The materials he looks at cover a wide area – from the fundamentals like steel, paper and concrete, to those that help as as we age, entertain us at leisure, but also some futuristic ones like aerogel (that’s actually been around since the 1930s) and nanotechnology.

But first, in the introduction, he explains to us where his fascination with materials came from and it’s a grim start. As a teenager, he was badly slashed with a super-sharp razor-blade by a mugger on the London underground, and couldn’t believe that a small blade could hold an edge that would cut through five layers of clothing and so deeply through the skin of his back as he escaped from his assailant.

We start off with steel, and it’s obvious that Miodownik is great at explaining complex subjects. Crystallography in metals is complicated, but he extracts the essence from it telling us how the faults in the crystal lattice of steel alloys moving through the structure when hammered for instance are what gives it strength. This is no mean feat, and accompanied by little diagrams, the lay reader gets the information that they need to comprehend the usefulness of the material.

The chapter on paper is lovely. To illustrate it, he uses a whole selection of different kinds of paper from his own files – from a fading receipt on thermal paper for a Marks & Spencer curry, to his Polish father’s exit stamped ID card from the start of WWII. I was glad he included a photo of his crammed bookshelves too, in pages about the development of thin paper that could be bound into a codex, or book.

You might not think of chocolate as a material that has been engineered, but once you discover some of the properties of cocoa butter and cocoa nut powder, you’ll marvel even more about this most delicious foodstuff. “Chocolate is designed to transform into a liquid as soon as it hits your mouth,” he tells us, releasing its array of taste sensations. Eating if from the fridge defeats the object, “Cold chocolate gets swallowed before it’s had a chance to melt.” 

On a less technical but fascinating note, he explains the differences in taste between various country’s milk chocolate styles: 

In the USA the milk used has had some of its fat removed by enzymes, giving the chocolate a cheesy, almost rancid flavour. In the UK sugar is added to liquid milk and it is this solution, reduced into a concentrate, that is added to the chocolate, creating a milder caramel flavour. In Europe powdered milk is still used, giving the chocolate a fresh dairy flavour with a powdery texture. These different tastes do not travel well. Despite globalization, the preferred taste of milk chocolate, once acquired, remains surprisingly regional.

Stuff Matters is a wonderful tour around the world of materials science. Miodownik personalises it all the way through with stories and asides from his own experience, most of which seem to result in him getting injured, but these do keep us entertained. They also help to explain the facts and contribute to the book being easy to read.  He makes for good company on the page and I heartily recommend this book for all with an interest in science.

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Annabel Gaskell is one of Shiny New Books’ co-editors, and loves science books that remind her how much science she has forgotten!

Mark Miodownik, Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, (Penguin: London, 2013). 978-0241955185, 272pp., paperback. 

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