Review of Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $26.00, July 2014)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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We live in a remarkable high-tech world, surrounded by objects with extraordinary properties that are only possible because of fabricated materials. We have silicon microchips, fiberoptic glass cables, airplanes made from ultralight but ultrastrong composites and alloys, and of course, chocolate.

That is the take-away message from Mark Miodownik’s entertaining and informative Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. Miodownik holds two titles at University College London, both of which will evoke a curious smile: Professor of Materials and Society and Director of the Institute for Making.

Those titles alone are enough to make readers want to know him better. And to their delight, the book delivers on both the scientific and personal levels. Its anecdotes, inviting prose, and unusual choice of chapter titles introduce both the author and his field of research, materials science.

It is a field that is inseparable from the roots and evolution of human civilization. It goes back to a time when discoveries were empirical, long before scientific and engineering approaches had emerged.

It goes back to our earliest technology. With its Greek root “techne-” for making things, technology leads to both artistry and craftsmanship, to beauty and utility. Miodownik puts it this way: “The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.”

He goes on to note the importance of materials to civilization underlies “the names we have used to categorize the stages of civiliztion—the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age—with each new era of human existence being brought about by a new material.”

Today, materials both new and old are being transformed by science and technology, and they continue to reshape the way we live. To tell that story, Miodownik invites his readers to his London rooftop where he sits wearing a comfortable sweter and sneakers, reading a book, sipping tea from an heirloom china cup, surrounded by potted plants, with antennas and multistory buildings in the background.

Each chapter opens with that same picture with an arrow highlighting a particular man-made material, followed by a personal story that leads in a sometimes circuitous but always fascinating path to his main point about a class of materials.

The titles of each of the first ten chapters are evocative adjectives. It opens with the arrow pointing to the “Indomitable” steel support of his table and an anecdote about meeting a man named Brian in a Dublin pub who had invented an electronic machine to sharpen blunt razor blades.

It may have been a crackpot idea, but it was possible that Brian had stumbled upon a useful process, just as our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age ancestors had. “He explained that he had invented his machine by trial and error, with no appreciation for the physics and chemistry at play,” Miodownik writes, “and yet it seemed he had somehow succeeded. What he wanted from me was to measure the sharpness of the razors before and after they had been through his process.”

From there, Miodownik moves to the science of various iron-carbon alloys, decribing how each one’s properties depends on details of its composition and crystal structure, and to the history of metallurgy and its empirical roots.

Other chapters include materials from “Trusted” paper to “Fundamental” yet remarkably high-tech concrete, to “Imaginative” plastics, “Invisible” glass, and “Unbreakable” yet soft and slippery graphite and its multitude of carbon cousins.

“Delicious” chocolate and “Refined” porcelain are also on the menu, followed by a dessert of “Synthesis,” which notes that materials are “complex expressions of human needs and desires. And in order to create those materials,… we have had to master the complexity of their inner structure.”

The book ends with a repeat of the rooftop photograph above a caption noting the author’s hope that “as a result of reading this book, you’ll see it a little differently.” Neither Miodownik nor his readers will get up from that table disappointed.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly thirty books for young readers, including the American Institute of Physics Award-Winning Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels.

Why all the buzz about inflation?

If you are not a physicist, you may be asking yourself why so many science reporters are suddenly abuzz about gravitational waves and the phenomenon known as Cosmic Inflation. Perhaps this blog post can help answer that question.

As an author of nearly 30 science books for young readers, I may be well equipped to simplify and clarify both without losing too much depth. If you want more after this, I recommend this link from Stanford University, which includes a video of a key scientist, Andrei Linde, getting the news in person from one of his colleagues.

Let’s start with the idea of Cosmic Inflation, which is represented by the lower portion of the Stanford University graphic below. The horizontal axis is time from the Big Bang, which is at the extreme left end. The vertical spread represents the size of the universe.

History of the Universe BICEP2 Why all the buzz about inflation?

As proposed originally by Stanford Postdoctoral Fellow Alan Guth (now a professor at MIT), inflation happened less than 10-32 seconds after the Bang Bang. At that point, the universe abruptly inflated faster than the speed of light would permit. The explanation is that space-time itself emerged from the Big Bang, and it was space-time rather than matter or energy that inflated.

Inflation is needed to solve a cosmic puzzle. When we look at deep regions of the universe in opposite directions, we are seeing parts of the universe that are too far apart to have communicated with one another, even with signals that travel as fast as light. Yet somehow, they are at the same temperature; that is they are in thermal equilibrium. Inflation explains how that can be possible. The entire universe was in thermal equilibrium in the tiny bit of time before inflation began.

The idea of that faster-than-light inflation did not sit very well with some physicists, who wanted observations that directly showed evidence of the inflationary event. The upper part of the graphic helps explain that evidence. According to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, changing the distribution of mass or energy in space creates ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves. Linde, then living in Russia, proposed that if the gravitational waves created by inflation could be detected, they would reveal details of that brief but critical period in the history of the universe. A remarkable collaborative observation of the Cosmic Microwave Background in a project known as BICEP2, has done precisely that.

I predict that this discovery, if confirmed, will win a Nobel Prize for Physics for Guth and Linde very soon–if not the next one, then the one after that. No wonder this announcement is creating such a buzz!

ADDENDUM: Confirmation seems to be unlikely, given that serious doubt has now been cast on these results. See this article in Scientific American for a clear explanation of why dust may be responsible for the BICEP2 results.

Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power

At a Nobel Forum in December 2013, several past laureates discussed the future of nuclear power. Their conclusions were far from unanimous. All agreed that nuclear power is the only current technology capable of replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large enough scale to mitigate the risk of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

But as I note in my 2012 book for young readers, FrontCoverMed Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power
Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future
, the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns hangs heavily over the future development of the industry. The political and technological questions are intertwined. These include:

Should we continue to use uranium reactor technology or replace it with thorium breeder reactors?

Are we capable of properly assessing the risks of nuclear power?

Should we consider nuclear technology a permanent piece of our energy future, or should we consider it a bridge to a late 21st-century electric power industry dominated by wind turbines and solar energy–or perhaps even nuclear fusion reactors?

For people seeking clear answers, the forum might be considered a disappointment. To them, I respond that the most important issues of technology and society rarely have clear-cut approaches. The best we can do is to continue to raise open questions and compare them to the physical, political, and economic environment not only of the present but of the future in which those technological approaches will be applied.

The forum raised those open questions. It will be up to future leaders, who make up the target audience for my books, to grapple with them.

Book Review (Physics): Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggott
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Modern physics is in trouble. Just when we think we are on the verge of sewing everything up, we tug on a loose end and whole sections of the tapestry unravel.

This is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, thanks largely to breakthrough ideas of Einstein, physicists were replacing space and time with spacetime. Mass and energy, once so obviously different, became a single property related by the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2.

Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was the first glimmer of an emerging new subfield, quantum physics. Meanwhile the first subatomic particles had been discovered, and many more were to follow.

Great minds proposed new theories. And those theories were challenged and shaped by great experiments. Gradually, physicists accepted the evidence that both relativity and quantum mechanics are valid descriptions of nature, and they developed the “Standard Model” to describe the properties of emerging array of subatomic particles.

Together, those remarkably successful descriptions of the physical universe comprise what physicist and author Jim Baggott calls “The Authorized Version,” which he describes in detail in the first half of his critique of current physics, Farewell to Reality.

The Authorized Version has flaws and missing pieces as well as strengths. For example, it suggests ways to unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces, but gravity remains in its own realm. Likewise quantum mechanics and relativity should both apply to the extreme conditions of the Big Bang and Black Holes, but their mathematics do not mesh.

And although the recent (apparent) discovery of the Higgs boson has strengthened the Standard Model, the latest astronomical measurements suggest that the model leaves out most of the universe. Approximately 95 percent of the cosmos is either “dark matter,” which we observe through its gravitational attraction on the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters, or “dark energy,” which produces a kind of anti-gravity on the cosmic scale.

Those defects in The Authorized Version are not the reason for Baggott’s challenging subtitle, How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Truth. Rather, he asserts that modern physics has said “Farewell to Reality” in the attempts to fill in The Authorized Version’s gaps with theoretical leaps and multiple conjectures that he calls “fairy-tale physics.”

He uses that characterization to take on Stephen Hawking directly. In a 2010 book, Hawking calls Superstring or M-Theory The Grand Design, presenting it as his favorite candidate theory of everything. Baggott, however, contends that M-Theory is built on an astonishing sequence of speculative assumptions, with no supporting experimental evidence for any of them.

He argues that M-Theory’s proposal of a “multiverse” is implausible in the extreme. The M-Theory multiverse is a vast set of universes with different physical constants. By chance, a few of those turn out to be suitable for the formation of stars, planets, and the atoms and molecules of life.

What bothers Baggott and attracts Hawking is that the number of possible universes in the multiverse is approximately ten to the five hundredth power! The advantage of such a large number is that even an exceptionally unlikely event, such as the evolution of a living world with intelligent life, becomes inevitable.

Baggott looks at it differently. “Scientists (even theoretical physicists) should not be afraid to say they don’t know…. We want them to speculate, to push the frontiers of their science. But when their ambition to give answers drives them to tell fairy tales,… let us all be clear that we have left science far behind.”

Loose ends, he argues, are not a bad thing. And he eagerly begins to tug.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of twenty books including Physics: Decade by Decade, a history of physics in the twentieth century.

Is this the year for Peter Higgs?

A little more than a year ago, I blogged about the possibility of a Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs and others. I was premature, probably because the deliberation about the 2012 prizes was well underway when the researchers announced the likely discovery on July 4, 2012.

Also, the committee probably wanted to wait for subsequent announcements that would strengthen the discovery and provide more insight into the presumed particle’s properties. Many are now calling it the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson because of a slightly earlier publication by Robert Brout and François Englert (August 1964 vs. Higgs’ October paper) that discussed the mass-giving field but did not specifically include the boson.

Now the speculation about the winner of this year’s Nobel Prizes has begun. Thomson Reuters, which publishes an index of research paper citations, predicts that this is the year for Higgs and Englert. (Brout is deceased and the prize is only awarded to living scientists.)

Since others contributed significant papers soon after (notably Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble, who published their contribution in December), and since the Nobel can be shared up to three ways, I have to wonder whether there will be an additional winner.

Since physics is an interplay between theory and experiment, I also wonder how the experimentalists who designed and conducted the experiment that ultimately led to the boson’s discovery will be honored. I think it is likely that another Nobel Prize for that work will be forthcoming before the end of this decade.

Stay tuned.

P.S.: Recommended reading about the quest for the Higgs Boson, The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample

P.P.S.: If you are interested in my perspectives on the recent history of Physics and a look ahead to the discoveries waiting to happen in the next several years, please look for my 2007 book Physics: Decade by Decade in the Twentieth-Century Science collection from Facts on File.

Remembering Hugh D. Young

Many readers of Science Blog will recognize the name Hugh D. Young from the textbooks he wrote. I was lucky enough to know him as a professor and friend.

He left us as the age of 82 on Tuesday, August 20, 2013. His official obituary is here. I won’t repeat its details. Instead, I will share a few personal thoughts.

When Hugh retired in 2004, I was one of a small number of past students who were able to present a brief remembrance. Here is what I have on my computer from that ceremony. I’ll follow it with additional thoughts that I would not have included at that ceremony.

The request was simple: “We’re making a video for Hugh Young’s retirement tribute. Would you say a few words about him?”

“I’d be honored,” I replied. Then I realized what I had committed myself to: a few words.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to be concise. I know how important it is to distinguish my remarks from others. I know how essential it is to know my audience and connect with them. And I know it wouldn’t hurt to leave them with a smile.

We all know that Hugh Young is a great teacher, and I’ll include a few words about that. But because my career path has taken me from the practice of physics to writing about it and about other sciences, I want to focus on Hugh Young the writer and the influence his books have had on me.

Not every good teacher writes well, and not every good writer can teach. But they share some important common traits. Every student who has had the experience of a course with Dr. Young knows that this professor loves his subject. He prepares each lecture and demonstration with thorough attention to detail. At the heart of each is a question, because that is the way physics reveals the universe.

But good teaching is more than academic. Hugh’s students know that he is personally concerned about every one of them. Even in a 200-seat lecture hall, every bleary-eyed undergraduate pays rapt attention. They have to do their best in his class. They can’t disappoint Dr. Young.

Hugh Young’s books convey both enthusiasm for his subject matter and concern for the students who grapple with it. Most of you know him for his work on the massive Sears, Zemansky, and Young University Physics text. But I remember three earlier works that I encountered as an undergraduate, a graduate assistant, and a young professor.

I still have all three. The two hardcover texts — Fundamentals of Mechanics and Heat and Fundamentals of Optics and Modern Physics — are models of clarity. They provide detail without overwhelming the students, and they never fail to hold the reader’s interest. I am sure their approach was influential in my own writing about an important and complex subject, Materials Science and Engineering, for a somewhat younger readership.

The result was Techno-Matter, for which I won the 2002 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for works intended for young readers. The award not only included a cash prize but also an inscribed Windsor chair similar to one that might come with an endowed professorship. It is clearly so special that some visitors to my home ask permission to sit in it, but Hugh would be welcome to plop his posterior there without asking.

The paperback Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data was the text for Dr. Young’s sophomore course in Physical Measurements. Before that course, I treated measurements as numbers to be put into formulas. Afterwards, I realized that measurements provide an imperfect perspective on the physical universe, but it is the only perspective we can have.

That is something that fourth graders can appreciate on their own level, and so I begin my one and only project book, Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch, with a section on measurements and what they mean.

The illustrator and I used a bug-eyed space alien to help me get the point across. If I ever revise the book, I’ll ask the artist to give the alien a buzz haircut, a long face, owlish glasses, a prominent Adam’s apple, and a great Hugh Young smile.

Thanks, Hugh, for everything!

Thinking about Hugh’s life would not be complete without the legends that swirled around the Carnegie Tech campus when I was a student there and Hugh was an age 30-something professor. Apparently, he was a straight-A undergraduate student who belonged to a fraternity sometimes known for its outrageousness. And the undergraduate Hugh was known for his writing with a distinctive brand of humor. Though I never saw a copy of the alleged document, I heard that the fraternity had the original copy of “Hugh Young’s Dirty Ditties.”

The only excerpt I recall was called “The Night of the King’s Castration.” It began, if memory serves, “It was the Night of the King’s Castration. The Royal Ball was about to come off.” He described those in attendance at the event, including “Counts, Viscounts, and No-Accounts.” And I am sure the story had much better–and much bawdier–material.

But we also knew that our very bright and very personable professor also had a soft spot in his heart for many people, most especially his wife, who survives him. I’ll never forget the dedication of one of his books, “To Alice, who shares her Wonderland with me.” Perhaps that is why I strive to write meaningful dedications in my own books.

Perhaps I should dedicate my next one in his memory.

Tornado Chasers and TV Networks

Over the past two weeks, the Oklahoma City area has been hit by two tragic tornados, and although the first one was more deadly, the second one provides us with the more important lessons.

In the first one, which struck the city of Moore, was classified as in the most powerful range (EF-5). The largest cluster of deaths were, unfortunately, eight people in a school that took a direct hit. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They staff of the school did its best to keep everyone safe, but there was no tornado shelter.

What bothered me most about the news coverage was the focus on people who picked their kids up at school and went driving away. These people were not smart, but lucky, since they actually put their kids at greater risk.

I had to wonder if that coverage was responsible for the large number of people out on the road in the most recent outbreak. As noted meteorologist Matt Daniel notes in his blog at EarthSky, eight of the nine people who died during that outbreak were in cars.


That outbreak splashed this picture of the Weather Channel Tornado Hunt 2013 car that was caught in a tornado all over the Internet. Fortunately, the reporters survived, not because of skill but pure luck. Tim Samaras of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, his son, and storm chaser Carl Young, were not so lucky. They lost their lives when a storm cell blossomed into a tornado that they were unable to escape.

The fact that major networks see fit to have tornado chase cars is an important issue. Professional tornado chasing should have only one purpose: research. If Tim was doing research, then he lost his life taking a risk he understood for benefits he also understood. But if he was doing it for a TV network, then you have to question the value of his activity. Those deaths will be in vain if we don’t learn from them, and that requires asking the hard question about his motivation. That is not disrespectful, but it is painful, especially in the moment. We need to acknowledge both the pain and the importance.

Did Samaras need network money to fund his research and thus take unnecessary risks? If so, that says a lot about the state of meteorology research funding. I will be looking for information that sheds light on why he took a risk that ultimately cost him his life.

But I have little doubt that about the journalistic value of having storm chasers. It is zero. Having a storm-chasing vehicle allows the networks to get sensational images that add nothing to the news story but attract “eyeballs”. First responders don’t permit journalists to enter burning buildings because of the pointless risk to themselves and the possibility that they will get in the way of the firefighters. The same should be true in the case of storm chasing by networks.

Review of Visions of Infinity by Ian Stewart

Review of Visions of Infinity by Ian Stewart
(Basic Books, 352 pages, $26.99, March 2013)

This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

Learn more about Visions of Infinity at Amazon.com.

Few authors are better at understanding their readers than the prolific mathematics writer Ian Stewart. In his latest title, Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems, his target audience is clear and his aim is faultless. Anyone who has always loved math for its own sake or for the way it provides new perspectives on important real-world phenomena will find hours of brain-teasing and mind-challenging delight in the Warwick University (U.K.) emeritus professor’s survey of recently answered or still open mathematical questions.

“What makes a great mathematical problem great?” Stewart asks. “Intellectual depth, combined with simplicity and elegance. Plus: it has to be hard…. Great problems are creative: they help bring new mathematics into being.” [emphasis in original]

Remarkably, even the hardest of the great problems are easy to state, though some require deep mathematical knowledge to grasp the vocabulary. Others are so simple that little or no mathematical training is needed to understand them.

For example the four-color map problem asks whether four colors are enough to distinguish contiguous regions on a map from their neighbors. In practice, that seems to be true, but could it be proved? The answer turned out to be yes, but it took a mathematical tour de force and thousands of hours of computer time to do so.

Likewise Fermat’s last theorem, named for the great 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat, considers integer solutions to a simple extrapolation of Pythagoras’ famous relationship: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two smaller sides.

Fermat’s last theorem replaces squares in that formula with larger integral powers and asks whether there are sets of three integers that satisfy the new equations. In Fermat’s time, the common conjecture was that no such triplets existed for any power other than 2. Some people had proved it for certain powers, but not the general case. In the margin of one of his personal books, Fermat wrote a note that he had found a proof for that generalization; but if he had written it down, no one ever found it.

In 1995, British mathematician Andrew Wiles (1953- ), building on the efforts and false starts of many predecessors, finally cracked the problem that had entranced him since he first discovered it at age 10.

Visions of Infinity devotes a long chapter to Fermat’s Last Theorem, but Stewart also uses it in an opening vignette about a remarkably popular 1996 television documentary on the subject. “Wiles’s solution is much too complicated and technical for television,” he notes…. “The proof does involve a nice mathematical story, as we’ll see in due course, but any attempt to explain that on television would have lost most of the audience immediately. Instead, the programme sensibly concentrated on a more personal question: what is it like to tackle a notoriously difficult mathematical problem that carries a lot of historical baggage.”

Stewart employs a similar strategy that is bound to please his more mathematically sophisticated audience, who will relish the breadth and depth of topics ranging from ancient attempts to square the circle to challenges as modern as the complexity of computer programs and the standard model of particle physics.

Individual readers will dig deeply into certain chapters and skim read others according to personal preference, but every one of them will be captivated by the technical achievements, loose ends, and human insights that Stewart shares on his grand mathematical tour.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of twenty books including Physics: Decade by Decade, a history of physics in the twentieth century.

Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism

On the 46th of 64 pages of my 2012 book for middle grade readers, FrontCoverSm Pro Nuclear Environmentalism Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, I finally ask the question that the earlier chapters are designed to lead up to: “Is nuclear power worth the risk?”

The remainder of the book provides a definite response, but not the definite answer that the readers might be expecting. “The decision is yours. In 2036, when Fukushima is as far in the past as Chernobyl was in 2011, the world’s use of electricity will be very different. And so will the laws and regulations about nuclear power.” I then note that my readers will be the voters who choose the policies and policy-makers, and warn them, “The decisions you will face as a voter will be complex, difficult, and very important for your country and your government. But if governments and citizens act wisely, then the world will have the energy it needs, [and] people will not have to worry about serious changes in climate.”

Besides providing a vivid history of the earthquake, tsunami, and triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, the book also includes a look at nuclear technology and other alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity. I was careful not to stake out a pro- or anti-nuclear position, but rather I provided enough information for my readers to understand the alternatives. That approach left the door open to a solution that might be called “pro-nuclear environmentalism.”

Thus I was particularly pleased to discover a Mother Jones article by Keith Kloor, dated January 15, 2013, entitled “The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement”. Its subtitle poses this question: “After Fukushima, is nuclear energy still the best way to fight climate change?”

The article focuses on the views of leading climate-change scientist James Hansen and renowned science author Bill McKibben, who answer that question with a definite yes. However, Kloor also notes that solar and wind remain important ingredients, concluding, “Maybe we shouldn’t fixate on only one possible path to a low-carbon future, but rather accelerate progress along all the avenues (from nuclear and clean coal to solar and efficiency) that will get us to the same place–a planet with an atmosphere that remains hospitable. There is no guarantee any of them will get us there fast enough to stave off catastrophic climate change, but we have no other reasonable choice.”

I encourage both the adolescent readers of Meltdown! and the readers of this blog to consider the following:

There are safety concerns with nuclear power, but they can be addressed technologically if we have the political will. But do we have that will? Or will we, like Germany, try to eliminate all nuclear power, thereby increasing coal-burning and losing much of the benefit of its national push toward more renewable sources? Also consider, as Kloor’s article does, the impact of the worldwide boom in inexpensive natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Is the economic benefit of that boom so great that it is also slowing the growth of wind, solar, and biomass?

Kloor’s thought-provoking article is a great starting point. But I hope you will not stop there. Please follow the questions it opens up, and discuss them with your fellow citizens and political leaders.