Stuff Matters: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: December 11th, 2014 by bobmorris

Stuff MattersStuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
Mark Miodownik
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014)

How and why we need to find out “where materials came from, how they work, and what they say about us.”

The title of this book caught my eye, perhaps because of my fondness for one of George Carlin’’s routines. As for the subtitle, I was curious to know more about the “marvelous materials” that shape my every-day world. Then as I began to work my way through Mark Miodownik’s lively and eloquent narrative, I compiled a list of products with which I begin my day: alarm clock, pillows and covers, slippers, overhead light, toilet, shower, shampoo, towel, robe, sink, faucets, shave cream, razor, lotion, and brush. Mind you, all this is before I start a pot of coffee and fetch the newspapers from my front door.

Miodownik explores subjects in which I had no prior interest: In alpha order, aerogels, ACL repairs, bone china, celluloid, steel-reinfofrced concrete, graphene and graphite, meteors, polymers, and silicon dioxide. Miodownik explains, “The central idea behind materials science is that changes at these invisibly small [i.e. atomic] scales impact a material’s behavior at the human scale. It is this process that pour ancestors stumbled upon to make new materials such as bronze and steel, even though they did not have the microscopes to see what they were doing — an amazing achievement.”

Frankly, I never gave any of this much thought until I read this book the first time. Afterward, I began to reflect back on all the major changes in farm equipment, based on trial-and-error as well as research to improve it. The same can be said of major changes (“breakthrough innovations”?) throughout the history of warfare, again based on trial-and-error as well as research to improve weapons as well as vehicles and aircraft. The stirrup revolutionized warfare when first introduced as did the first McCormick reaper, eventually, after it was introduced in 1840 when Cyrus McCormick sold one. Without the “marvelous materials” to which Miodownik refers, I would have none of the items listed earlier, nor would anyone have much (if anything) except air, soil, water, vegetation, wood, and — if clever enough — fish and wildlife.

Here in Dallas near the downto0wn area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that same spirit, I now offer these brief excerpts that are representative of the thrust and flavor of Miodownik’s analysis:

“The central idea behind materials science is that changes of these invisibly small scales impact a material’s behavior at the human scale. It is this process that our ancestors stumbled upon to make new materials such as bronze and steel, even thought they did not have the microscopes to see what they were doing — an amazing achievement.” (Page xvii)

o “It is easy to underestimate the importance of note paper: it is a two-thousand-year-old technology, the sophistication of which is necessarily hidden from us so that, rather than being intimidated by its microscopic genius, we see only a blank page, allowing us to record on its surface whatever we choose.” (24)

o “It’s possible that, because of environmental considerations, our energy costs will get higher and higher. In a sufficiently high-cost energy future, it is conceivable that the monolithic double glazing we are all used to will be replaced with a much more sophisticated glass material based on aerogel technology.” (108)

o “We are all sensitive to the meanings of materials, whether consciously or unconsciously. And since everything is made from something, these meanings pervade our minds. We are being bombarded with them constantly in our environment. Whether we are out on a farm or in a city, or ion a train nor plane, in a library or a shopping mall, they affect us…In a very real way, then, materials are a reflection of who we are, a multi-scale expression of our human needs and desires.”(226)

Miodownik has helped me to understand — and appreciate — that the materials around us “might seem like blobs of differently colored matter, they are in fact much more than that: they are complex expressions of human needs and desires.” He has helped me to become much more fluent in the “language” of materials science, a language that offers “a unifying concept that encompasses all materials, not just the ones we have considered in detail in this book.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Mark Miodownik provides. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his rigorous’ lively, and eloquent exploration and analysis of the “marvelous materials that shape our-man made world.”

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