Bex Reflects — Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
There is a lot of stuff in Mark Miodownik’s fascinating book Stuff Matters, an account of the materials science underlying everyday objects, and little room for nonsense. Miodownik illustrates his efforts with the aid of a photograph of himself on the roof of his London home. Each chapter delves into the surprising properties of one of the ten materials featured in the photograph, from a steel table to a porcelain tea cup.
The chapter titles read like the personality traits of a brilliant job applicant — indomitable, trusted, imaginative — and that is because Stuff Matters is as much an exploration of our historical, cultural and psychological relationships with materials as it is about our scientific understanding of them. In his précis on paper (‘Trusted’), for example, Miodownik outlines the basics of paper manufacturing before taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the ubiquitous material, from its use in books, to toilet paper and gift wrap. He explains how the latter “ritualizes the act of giving and receiving, turning the object into a gift”.
Miodownik takes a more ambitious approach in his exploration of plastic, creating a screenplay to explain the relevance of plastic sweet wrappers to the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And if you have ever wondered how chocolatiers create the perfect ‘mouthfeel’, look no further than the chapter on chocolate (dubbed ‘Delicious’, of course). Knowledge of the different types of crystals formed by triglycerides in cocoa butter has helped to optimise the satisfying ‘snap’ when you bite into a piece of chocolate and the glorious sensation of chocolate melting on the tongue, he explains.
It would be impossible for a materials science book to avoid discussing the many guises of carbon. A diamond typically contains a million billion billion carbon atoms, the arrangement of which makes it exceptionally strong, stable and shiny, writes Miodownik. Yet graphene — a flat, one-atom-thick form of carbon with desirable electronic properties — has now knocked diamond off the top spot in the strength stakes, if not from anyone’s engagement-ring finger (not yet, anyway).
By the end of Stuff Matters, I knew much more about how the inner structures of the materials that occupy our material world govern their behaviour — and about how materials reflect who we are. “We love some materials despite their flaws and loathe others even if they are more practical,” Miodownik notes. Materials science isn’t the most obviously appealing subject matter, but Miodownik’s clear, compelling explanations make even concrete shine as brightly as diamond.
Bex Walton is a Senior Press Officer at Nature. You can find her tweeting about science and coffee at @Bex_Walton.