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.