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

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

4.2 10
by Mark Miodownik, Sarah Hunt Cooke
     
 

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A New York Times Bestseller

An eye-opening adventure deep inside the everyday materials that surround us, packed with surprising stories and fascinating science

Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paper clip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? These are the sorts of

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Overview

A New York Times Bestseller

An eye-opening adventure deep inside the everyday materials that surround us, packed with surprising stories and fascinating science

Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paper clip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? These are the sorts of questions that Mark Miodownik is constantly asking himself. A globally-renowned materials scientist, Miodownik has spent his life exploring objects as ordinary as an envelope and as unexpected as concrete cloth, uncovering the fascinating secrets that hold together our physical world.

In Stuff Matters, Miodownik entertainingly examines the materials he encounters in a typical morning, from the steel in his razor and the graphite in his pencil to the foam in his sneakers and the concrete in a nearby skyscraper. He offers a compendium of the most astounding histories and marvelous scientific breakthroughs in the material world, including:

  • The imprisoned alchemist who saved himself from execution by creating the first European porcelain.
  • The hidden gem of the Milky Way, a planet five times the size of Earth, made entirely of diamond.
  • Graphene, the thinnest, strongest, stiffest material in existence—only a single atom thick—that could be used to make entire buildings sensitive to touch.
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, our lives are overflowing with materials. Full of enthralling tales of the miracles of engineering that permeate our lives, Stuff Matters will make you see stuff in a whole new way.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Rose George
The mundanity of the title may be deliberate, for Stuff Matters is about hidden wonders, the astonishing properties of materials we think boring, banal and unworthy of attention—paper, concrete, glass, plastic…It's possible this science and these stories have been told elsewhere, but like the best chocolatiers, Miodownik gets the blend right.
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

Stuff Matters is about hidden wonders, the astonishing properties of materials we think boring, banal and unworthy of attention...It’s possible this science and these stories have been told elsewhere, but like the best chocolatiers, Miodownik gets the blend right." —The New York Times Book Review

"[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

"Midownik dives into every detail...[with] joyous curiosity." —Entertainment Weekly

"Miodownik, a materials scientist, explains the history and science behind things such as paper, glass, chocolate and concrete with an infectious enthusiasm." —Scientific American

"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

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

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

"Entertaining and informative...[Stuff Matters] delivers on both the scientific and personal levels. Its anecdotes, inviting prose and unusual chapter titles introduce both the author and his field of research, materials science." —Dallas Morning News

"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

"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

"[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 seemthrilling."The Sunday Times (UK)

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

"Entertaining...These materials make fascinating reading." —Materials Today (UK)

"A great look at the science and stories behind the seemingly mundane substances that make up almost everything." —Physics Central

"A compact, intense guided tour through a handful of physical materials, from concrete to chocolate, revealing what makes them profoundly affect our lives...[Miodownik] writes with enthusiasm, empathy and gratitude, making us care for concrete or foam as much as for Mr. Darcy or the Artful Dodger...[Stuff Matters] puts the wonder and strangeness back into all the truly magical stuff that comprises our everyday reality." —Kirkus

"A fascinating introduction to materials science...Miodownik’s infectious curiosity and explanatory gifts will inspire readers to take a closer look at the materials around them." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Ever wonder how concrete is made? Why chocolate gets white spots when it heats up then cools down again? What makes diamond and graphite, two allotropes of carbon, behave so differently? Miodownik (materials and society, Univ. Coll. of London; Computational Materials Engineering) answers all of these questions and more through relating his personal experiences with each type of material. The author explores the worlds of the grandiose as he watches the construction of the Shard in London, Europe’s tallest building; and the miniscule, as he examines how small pores can lead to fractures in terra cotta, but similar fractures can be stopped in plaster (like that in a cast) by applying it over cloth. Miodownik introduces enough chemistry to explain, as his title suggests, the stuff that matters, but relates the science in such a way that the book should be accessible to all readers. ­VERDICT Recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the materials that make up the world around them." —Library Journal, STARRED

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.
Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
Ever wonder how concrete is made? Why chocolate gets white spots when it heats up then cools down again? What makes diamond and graphite, two allotropes of carbon, behave so differently? Miodownik (materials and society, Univ. Coll. of London; Computational Materials Engineering) answers all of these questions and more through relating his personal experiences with each type of material. The author explores the worlds of the grandiose as he watches the construction of the Shard in London, Europe's tallest building; and the miniscule, as he examines how small pores can lead to fractures in terra cotta, but similar fractures can be stopped in plaster (like that in a cast) by applying it over cloth. Miodownik introduces enough chemistry to explain, as his title suggests, the stuff that matters, but relates the science in such a way that the book should be accessible to all readers. VERDICT Recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the materials that make up the world around them.—John Kromer, Miami Univ. of Ohio Lib., Oxford, OH

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780544236042
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
05/27/2014
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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.

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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