Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

Overview

Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paperclip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does?

With clarity and humor, world-leading materials scientist Mark Miodownik answers all the questions you’ve ever had about your pens, spoons, and razor blades, while also introducing a whole world full of materials you’ve never even heard of: the diamond five times the size of Earth; concrete cloth that can be molded into any shape; and graphene,...

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Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

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Overview

Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paperclip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does?

With clarity and humor, world-leading materials scientist Mark Miodownik answers all the questions you’ve ever had about your pens, spoons, and razor blades, while also introducing a whole world full of materials you’ve never even heard of: the diamond five times the size of Earth; concrete cloth that can be molded into any shape; and graphene, the thinnest, strongest, stiffest material in existence—only a single atom thick.

Stuff Matters tells enthralling stories that explain the science and history of materials. From the teacup to the jet engine, the silicon chip to the paper clip, the plastic in our appliances to the elastic in our underpants, Miodownik reveals the miracles of engineering that permeate our lives. As engaging as it is incisive, Stuff Matters will make you see the materials that surround you with new eyes.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 03/10/2014
Miodownik, director of the Institute of Making at University College London, writes a fascinating introduction to materials science, a discipline unfamiliar to most outside it. To “tell the story of stuff” he takes a photo of himself enjoying a cup of tea on his London rooftop, and proceeds to examine 10 of the materials in the photo. These materials (concrete, glass, plastics, etc.) are ubiquitous in the modern world and possess their own chemistry and history. Miodownik includes himself in his discussions so that, in the chapter on biomaterials, readers learn about his fillings as well as his disappointment that when he broke a leg as a child he didn’t receive the same upgrades as the Six Million Dollar Man. His humor helps highlight such facts as we are one of the first generations to not taste our cutlery, due to the properties of stainless steel, or that “the biggest diamond yet discovered... is orbiting a pulsar star” and is “five times the size of Earth.” In his chapter on paper, he describes the book as “a fortress for words,” while he regards chocolate as “one of our greatest engineering creations.” Miodownik’s infectious curiosity and explanatory gifts will inspire readers to take a closer look at the materials around them. (June)
From the Publisher
"[Ordinary objects] have found their poet in Mark Miodownik...A thrilling account of the modern material world ...Though I blush to recall it, once I had the impression that materials science was dull and pedestrian. "Stuff Matters" has changed my mind; now I find myself running my fingers along things and sighing. Mr. Miodownik's lively, eloquent book changes the way one looks at the world."
Wall Street Journal

"I stayed up all night reading this book . Miodownik writes with such knowledge, such enthusiasm, such a palpable love for his subject." Oliver Sacks, author of Hallucinations

"Stuff Matters makes the seemingly banal objects of our everyday lives into an endless source of wonder, dreams and possibility."
Salon

"Midownik dives into every detail...[with] joyous curiosity."
Entertainment Weekly, B+

"Why can we see through glass windows? What makes steel so versatile? Materials scientist Miodownik intertwines humorous vignettes of daily life in London with subatomic behavior to explain the feats of engineering that brought us samurai swords, skyscrapers, pool balls and even chocolate. From concrete in Roman architecture to atom-thick graphene, Miodownik builds on a historical framework to give readers an idea of future applications. Clever in every sense of the word, Stuff Matters may leave you looking at windows rather than through them."Discover

"Concrete, chocolate, paper, porcelain; this is a fascinating and informative account of the ‘stuff’ of our everyday lives."  
—Penny Le Couteur, coauthor of Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

"It is a rare thing for a true scientist to be able to explain how things work so clearly to the layperson—and even rarer to do so in such an entertaining fashion. No one who reads this book will look at the world quite the same again."
—Kate Ascher, author of The Works, The Heights, and The Way to Go

"Superb storytelling ... fascinating ... a delightful book on a subject that is relatively rarely written about."
Popular Science

"[A] wonderful account of the materials that have made the modern world…Miodownik writes well enough to make even concrete sparkle."
Financial Times

"A deftly written, immensely enjoyable little book."
Observer (UK)

"[Miodownik] makes even the most everyday seem thrilling."
The Sunday Times (UK)

"Enthralling ... a mission to re-acquaint us with the wonders of the fabric that sustains our lives."
Guardian

"Miodownik, director of the Institute of Making at University College London, writes a fascinating introduction to materials science, a discipline unfamiliar to most outside it. To "tell the story of stuff" he takes a photo of himself enjoying a cup of tea on his London rooftop, and proceeds to examine 10 of the materials in the photo. These materials (concrete, glass, plastics, etc.) are ubiquitous in the modern world and possess their own chemistry and history. Miodownik includes himself in his discussions so that, in the chapter on biomaterials, readers learn about his fillings as well as his disappointment that when he broke a leg as a child he didn’t receive the same upgrades as the Six Million Dollar Man. His humor helps highlight such facts as we are one of the first generations to not taste our cutlery, due to the properties of stainless steel, or that "the biggest diamond yet discovered... is orbiting a pulsar star" and is "five times the size of Earth." In his chapter on paper, he describes the book as "a fortress for words," while he regards chocolate as "one of our greatest engineering creations." Miodownik’s infectious curiosity and explanatory gifts will inspire readers to take a closer look at the materials around them."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A compact, intense guided tour through a handful of physical materials, from concrete to chocolate, revealing what makes them profoundly affect our lives. Materials make up everything, including us, writes Miodownik (Materials and Society/ University Coll. London), and knowing something of their history, cultural influence and psychophysics (the science of our sensual interaction with them) is a gateway to understanding the world’s inner and outer complexities. The author writes with enthusiasm, empathy and gratitude, making us care for concrete or foam as much as for Mr. Darcy or the Artful Dodger. He begins with the story of his stabbing by a panhandler with a razor knife. Being a schoolboy at the time, Miodownik was less concerned with his survival than he was fascinated by the razor. What a remarkable thing, to cut through all that winter clothing and still deliver a deep wound, he thought. What is steel, anyway? From there, he takes us through the miracle of alloys: why hammering a metal makes it stronger, why we likely wouldn’t have the pyramids without copper, what the samurai’s sword has in common with the compass’ needle. A photograph of himself having a cup of tea on the roof of his apartment building launches his exploration of the materials that make up his surroundings: paper, concrete, chocolate and its divine transformation of state, from bitter bean to "pure dark chocolate in your mouth [that] start[s] to liquefy" as the cocoa butter crystals commence to wobble. Miodownik investigates everything from the brilliant thermal properties of silica aerogel, used in insulation, to the atomic arrangement of diamonds, which have an "unusually high optical dispersion" that we call sparkle. Why we are so taken with porcelain and why a newspaper rustles are not mysteries to Miodownik, who helps us understand the complexity of inner structures. Puts the wonder and strangeness back into all the truly magical stuff that comprises our everyday reality."
Kirkus Reviews

From the Publisher
"Miodownik achieves precisely what he sets out to, which is to make the case that the materials we have made are as extraordinary, and as revealing of us, as the materials we are made of." —The Times (UK)

"Makes even the most everyday seem thrilling" —The Sunday Times (UK)

"A deftly written, immensely enjoyable little book." —Observer (UK)

"Miodownik tells a good story. . . Enthralling." —The Guardian (UK)

"As you read it you begin to see the world around you the way Miodownik does: every piece of ‘stuff’ we take for granted in our daily lives has a rich story to tell: from stinky Roman concrete, exploding pool balls and ceramic dentures to supermaterials like graphene and aerogel. The author’s infectious enthusiasm shines through on every page." —Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey and author of Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-08
A compact, intense guided tour through a handful of physical materials, from concrete to chocolate, revealing what makes them profoundly affect our lives.Materials make up everything, including us, writes Miodownik (Materials and Society/ University Coll. London), and knowing something of their history, cultural influence and psychophysics (the science of our sensual interaction with them) is a gateway to understanding the world's inner and outer complexities. The author writes with enthusiasm, empathy and gratitude, making us care for concrete or foam as much as for Mr. Darcy or the Artful Dodger. He begins with the story of his stabbing by a panhandler with a razor knife. Being a schoolboy at the time, Miodownik was less concerned with his survival than he was fascinated by the razor. What a remarkable thing, to cut through all that winter clothing and still deliver a deep wound, he thought. What is steel, anyway? From there, he takes us through the miracle of alloys: why hammering a metal makes it stronger, why we likely wouldn't have the pyramids without copper, what the samurai's sword has in common with the compass' needle. A photograph of himself having a cup of tea on the roof of his apartment building launches his exploration of the materials that make up his surroundings: paper, concrete, chocolate and its divine transformation of state, from bitter bean to "pure dark chocolate in your mouth [that] start[s] to liquefy" as the cocoa butter crystals commence to wobble. Miodownik investigates everything from the brilliant thermal properties of silica aerogel, used in insulation, to the atomic arrangement of diamonds, which have an "unusually high optical dispersion" that we call sparkle. Why we are so taken with porcelain and why a newspaper rustles are not mysteries to Miodownik, who helps us understand the complexity of inner structures.Puts the wonder and strangeness back into all the truly magical stuff that comprises our everyday reality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544236042
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/27/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 23,211
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Miodownik recently appeared in The Times' inaugural list of the 100 most influential scientists in the UK. He is Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and presenter of several BBC television documentaries, including How it Works and The Genius of Invention, as well as appearing as scientist-in-residence on Dara O Briain's Science Club. In 2010, he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. He is Director of the UCL Institute of Making which is home to a materials library containing some of the most wondrous matter on earth, and has collaborated to make interactive events with many museums, such as Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery and Wellcome Collection.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

As I stood on a train bleeding from what would later be classified as a thirteen-centimeter stab wound, I wondered what to do. It was May 1985, and I had just jumped on to a London Tube train as the door closed, shutting out my attacker, but not before he had slashed my back. The wound stung like a very bad paper cut, and I had no idea how serious it was, but being a schoolboy at the time, embarrassment overcame any sort of common sense. So instead of getting help, I decided the best thing would be to sit down and go home, and so, bizarrely, that is what I did.
   
To distract myself from the pain, and the uneasy feeling of blood trickling down my back, I tried to work out what had just happened. My assailant had approached me on the platform asking me for money. When I shook my head he got uncomfortably close, looked at me intently, and told me he had a knife. A few specks of spit from his mouth landed on my glasses as he said this. I followed his gaze down to the pocket of his blue anorak. I had a gut feeling that it was just his index finger that was creating the pointed bulge. Even if he did have a knife, it must be so small to fit in that pocket that there was no way it could do me much damage. I owned penknives myself and knew that such a knife would find it very hard to pierce the several layers that I was wearing: my leather jacket, of which I was very proud, my gray wool school blazer beneath it, my nylon V-neck sweater, my cotton white shirt with obligatory striped school tie half knotted, and cotton vest. A plan formed quickly in my head: keep him talking and then push past him on to the train as the doors were closing. I could see the train arriving and was sure he wouldn’t have time to react.
   
Funnily enough I was right about one thing: he didn’t have a knife. His weapon was a razor blade wrapped in tape. This tiny piece of steel, not much bigger than a postage stamp, had cut through five layers of my clothes, and then through the epidermis and dermis of my skin in one slash without any problem at all. When I saw that weapon in the police station later, I was mesmerized. I had seen razors before of course, but now I realized that I didn’t know them at all. I had just started shaving at the time, and had only seen them encased in friendly orange plastic in the form of a Bic safety razor. As the police quizzed me about the weapon, the table between us wobbled and the razor blade sitting on it wobbled too. In doing so it glinted in the fluorescent lights, and I saw clearly that its steel edge was still perfect, unaffected by its afternoon’s work.
   
Later I remember having to fill in a form, with my parents anxiously sitting next to me and wondering why I was hesitating. Perhaps I had forgotten my name and address? In truth I had started to fixate on the staple at the top of the first page. I was pretty sure this was made of steel too. This seemingly mundane piece of silvery metal had neatly and precisely punched its way through the paper. I examined the back of the staple. Its two ends were folded snugly against one another, holding the sheaf of papers together in a tight embrace. A jeweler could not have made a better job of it. (Later I found out that the first stapler was hand-made for King Louis XV of France with each staple inscribed with his insignia. Who would have thought that staplers have royal blood?) I declared it “exquisite” and pointed it out to my parents, who looked at each other in a worried way, thinking no doubt that I was having a nervous breakdown.
   
Which I suppose I was. Certainly something very odd was going on. It was the birth of my obsession with materials—starting with steel. I suddenly became ultra-sensitive to its being present everywhere. I saw it in the tip of the ballpoint pen I was using to fill out the police form; it jangled at me from my dad’s key ring while he waited, fidgeting; later that day it sheltered and took me home, covering the outside of our car in a layer no thicker than a postcard. Strangely, I felt that our steel Mini, usually so noisy, was on its best behavior that day, materially apologizing for the stabbing incident. When we got home I sat down next to my dad at the kitchen table, and we ate my mum’s soup together in silence. Then I paused, realizing I even had a piece of steel in my mouth. I consciously sucked the stainless steel spoon I had been eating my soup with, then took it out and studied its bright shiny appearance, so shiny that I could even see a distorted reflection of myself in it. “What is this stuff?” I said, waving the spoon at my dad. “And why doesn’t it taste of anything?” I put it back in my mouth to check, and sucked it assiduously.
   
Then a million questions poured out. How is it that this one material does so much for us, and yet we hardly talk about it? It is an intimate character in our lives—we put it in our mouths, use it to get rid of unwanted hair, drive around in it—it is our most faithful friend, and yet we hardly know what makes it tick. Why does a razor blade cut while a paper clip bends? Why are metals shiny? Why, for that matter, is glass transparent? Why does everyone seem to hate concrete but love diamond? And why is it that chocolate tastes so good? Why does any material look and behave the way it does?
Since the stabbing incident, I have spent the vast majority of my time obsessing about materials. I’ve studied materials science at Oxford University, I’ve earned a PhD in jet engine alloys, and I’ve worked as a materials scientist and engineer in some of the most advanced laboratories around the world. Along the way, my fascination with materials has continued to grow—and with it my collection of extraordinary samples of them. These samples have now been incorporated into a vast library of materials built together with my friends and colleagues Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen. Some are impossibly exotic, such as a piece of NASA aerogel, which being 99.8 percent air resembles solid smoke; some are radioactive, such as the uranium glass I found at the back of an antique shop in Australia; some are small but stupidly heavy, such as ingots of the metal tungsten extracted painstakingly from the mineral wolframite; some are utterly familiar but have a hidden secret, such as a sample of self-healing concrete. Taken together, this library of more than a thousand materials represents the ingredients that built our world, from our homes, to our clothes, to our machines, to our art. The library is now located and maintained at the Institute of Making which is part of University College London. You could rebuild our civilization from the contents of this library, and destroy it too.
   
Yet there is a much bigger library of materials containing millions of materials, the biggest ever known, and it is growing at an exponential rate: the manmade world itself. Consider the photograph opposite. It pictures me drinking tea on the roof of my flat. It is unremarkable in most ways, except that when you look carefully it provides a catalog of the stuff from which our whole civilization is made. This stuff is important. Take away the concrete, the glass, the textiles, the metal, and the other materials from the scene, and I am left naked shivering in midair. We may like to think of ourselves as civilized, but that civilization is in a large part bestowed by material wealth. Without this stuff, we would quickly be confronted by the same basic struggle for survival that animals are faced with. To some extent, then, what allows us to behave as humans are our clothes, our homes, our cities, our stuff, which we animate through our customs and language. (This becomes very clear if you ever visit a disaster zone.) 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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
   1. Indomitable 1
   2. Trusted 21
   3. Fundamental 51
   4. Delicious 73
   5. Marvelous 91
   6. Imaginative 111
   7. Invisible 139
   8. Unbreakable 159
   9. Refined 179
   10. Immortal 195
   11. Synthesis 215
Acknowledgments 229
Credits 233
Further Reading 235
Index 237

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