Book Review: Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

This was the one book I received for Christmas, having acquired rather a lot in my various visits to bookshops last year. Stuff Matters was added to my reading list after it won the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Materials science is not my strongest point. I recall my A-level physics teacher trying to persuade my best friend and I to look into materials science as a degree. I also recall being rather snobbish about it as a 17 year old and dismissing it as a hybrid subject. I was more interested in the purity of maths than the mess of metallurgy.

Yet it’s precisely with metallurgy that Miodownik starts. If you’ve seen him on tv (and he’s done a few shows, most notably the Royal Institution Christmas lectures) then you may well have seen his testimony about how he first got interested in material science. He was attacked by someone with a razor blade and was absolutely fascinated about how such a small object could cut through as many layers as he had on and still cut so cleanly and sharply through his flesh. This story is told in full at the start of Stuff Matters.

The book is told as the story of a photograph. It’s a photo of Mark sat on a roof garden with various objects around him. His contention is that each of the objects are made of interesting substances that each have their own story to tell. His aim is to get us to appreciate the world around us, particularly those things which humans have manufactured or manipulated to suit their own purposes.

In this review, I shan’t cover all of the topics that Miodownik does, but I hope to give you an appreciable taste of the book.

Building on the opening salvo about steel, it is only natural that the opening chapter looks at steel, a substance that Miodownik points out is ubiquitous in the modern world, yet it goes almost unnoticed by many. An interesting point I learnt was that metals tend to be in crystalline forms and that the manipulation of steel in particular (think of a blacksmith hammering out a hot blade) is reliant on the slippage of these crystals over one another. We get a brief rundown in the history of steel, including the industrialisation of it via the Bessemer process.

From steel, we move onto paper, the latter probably having cut me more times than the former. Again we have a fascinating sort of potted history of the substance, though it’s interesting that paper doesn’t really have a single definition. For example, Miodownik includes bank notes in his analysis when many would point out that they are linen-based and not really paper. After all, linen isn’t wood-based which may be many people’s starting point of reference. One fact that I learnt was that receipt paper already has ink within it but that it only appears when treated with heat. This finally explained a feature I’ve long puzzled about whereby if I wave a receipt in front of a halogen lamp heater it appears to go black, as if burnt, yet it is never consumed.

The book is full of such little vignettes of fascination that kept me enthralled which is why I sped through the book much faster than normal. The only disappointment came in the discussion of graphene. I’ve long known what it is but have never grasped why it is has caused such a fuss in recent years. Miodownik does cover the subject but at the end of that chapter I was left none the wiser as to what it is about graphene that ensured that work on it garnered a Nobel Prize or how it could be of wider use than as a mere curio.

One of the quirks of Miodownik’s writing (and his presenting) is a passion almost verging on a fetish for concrete. While it is certainly a great construction substance that deserves to have its story told, Miodownik bemoans the fact that the concrete core of the Shard is covered up, almost as though it’s a dirty secret that is best hidden. As someone who lives not from the author in south London I cannot agree with his attempt to appeal to the aesthetics of concrete, particularly when  I pass the brutalist architecture at Elephant & Castle on my way to work. But it’s rather charming that such an offputting substance had its passionate advocates.

That passion isn’t just limited to concrete though. It permeates the whole book and is, I think, a significant factor as to why it won the Winton Prize.

There’s much more that I’ve left out of this review, but I hope I’ve given you a taste. It’s definitely a recommended read. I learnt from it and if I’ve not been effusive enough to so far, it’s made me slightly regret not looking further into materials science as a degree option.

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