Book Review: Stuff Matters

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik

When I watched the BBC documentary series Connections (which I recommend to everybody), one of the main takeaways was how important materials science and engineering are to the modern world. No matter the impressive high-tech features of some modern product, buried in the background is likely a need for highly-pure materials unavailable, save in maybe small quantities, to our ancestors. And so I picked up Miodownik’s popular-level Stuff Matters to get a materials fix.

A different material is explored in each of the main chapters, and we are led on a tour of

  • Steel
  • Paper, of various kinds
  • Concrete, including steel-reinforced concrete
  • Chocolate
  • Aerogels
  • Plastics, particularly celluloid
  • Glass
  • Carbon, including graphite, diamond, carbon fiber, graphene, and nanotubes
  • Ceramics, particularly porcelain
  • Biomaterials, including plaster, amalgams for tooth-fillings, and titanium

There’s a concluding chapter that moves quickly between the different length scales involved in materials and tries to end pointlessly romantically.

This is not a systematic approach to understanding materials, but rather essentially a collection of popular-level essays on various materials of interest. I don’t mean that as some sort of pointed criticism; the book is what it is. Some materials I might like to have included (there’s always a question of space) are aluminum, hydrocarbons, and textiles.

When posed with the question of what one piece of knowledge would we want to pass down if all of our scientific civilization were to crumbled, the most useful might be “all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” I had that in the back of mind as Stuff Matters regularly delves into how the arrangement of atoms determines the macro-scale properties of different materials. Arrange them one way and you get diamond; arrange them in another and you get pencil graphite.

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