From Outer Space to the Bowels of Planet Earth, This Is the Stuff We’re Made Of

In Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik, a quirky science writer, shares his love and knowledge of the materials that shape our world.

Using an unassuming photograph of himself eating breakfast al fresco as a jumping off point, Mark Miodownik dives into the qualities of a variety of quotidian — yet miraculous — materials that make modern life tick.

Miodownik is a materials scientist, fascinated by the properties that makes stuff react the way we expect to — or in unforeseen ways. To set the context for his lifelong interest in the manufactured building blocks of our physical world, Miodownik tells the story of getting attacked in the London Underground as a teenager. The blade that penetrated his treasured leather jacket and all the layers beneath to make a 13 centimeter cut in his bare skin turned into an object of fascination as he waited later for medical assistance. Obviously, Miodownik lived to tell the tale, but he also satisfied his curiosity about what makes metal hold a sharp edge, chocolate melt in your mouth, and aerogels so light yet multi-chambered that they can capture space dust.

Speaking of aerogels, silica aerogel is the lightest solid in the world, made of 99.8 percent air, and looks vaguely blue because of the light refraction within its many tiny chambers. There’s a great photo in the book of a piece of aerogel atop a flame, a delicate flower resting on top of the gel, which is an effective barrier against extreme temperature change because of the same principle that makes your double-paned windows a practical choice. It would hold incredible potential as an insulating material but for now only NASA can seem to afford to produce it.

Miodownik’s tone is engaging and accessible, a quirky science writer sharing his love and joy of learning about how the manufactured or found materials our physical world is comprised of affect our routines and choices. For nonfiction this is a fast read, never getting bogged down by too much convoluted science talk. Miodownik supplements his writing with sketches at the atomic level to show the relationship between particles, and photographs on the larger scale to show examples of people, spaces, and objects that epitomize the core concepts under examination.

Society and our activities within it are shaped and channeled through the “marvelous materials” around us. The characteristics of the materials, the “stuff”, are both what makes our daily lives possible and also perhaps what prevents us from dreaming up new ways to interact with and use these materials. Some of these characteristics are obvious (glass is translucent, chocolate tastes great but only after an arduous refinement process), and some are hidden but tremendously useful (stainless steel has a self-sealing property that keeps it from rusting even after it gets scratched).

Miodownik delights in bringing these hidden properties to light, playfully challenging the reader to consider what makes some things valuable, what makes some things cheap, and some of the historical wonders that have changed our world forever, like exploding pool balls and the development of celluloid film and the polaroid camera. He seems like the perfect kind of materials scientist, someone who puts the pieces together to figure out what is going on, then disassembles them to see what else he can come up with.

Things really start to get interesting when we challenge expectations of basic materials like concrete, which can be improved to include self-healing properties. Half the world’s structures are made from the boring gray stuff, and it doesn’t seem to have advanced much since Roman times.

Concrete of the future however may well contain moisture-activated and beneficial microorganisms within it, so that just as it starts to deteriorate through exposure to the elements, it will begin getting stronger again as it rebuilds itself from the outside in. Sounds like a pretty sci-fi idea whose time has come.

Just as the ages we learn about in history class are named after specific materials that created tools or other useful objects, when new materials are developed they change modern technologies and thus our behaviour and use of our manmade world. From cities to centres of learning and medicine, all the way down to our homes and even the sweets we treat ourselves with, these materials deserve to have their impact scrutinized.

Miodownik describes how certain materials come into existence, and follows up with later tales of their disintegration, compromise, and descent into ephemerality as materials science advances. Even diamonds aren’t really forever. Speaking of which, did you know that the largest known diamond in the Milky Way is a planet five times the size of Earth? Or that if you burn a diamond, it will disappear completely, broken down into simple carbon once again?

Miodownik’s gaze takes in the high level views and refocuses right down to the atoms and chemical connections that form the base materials under examination. Fully engaging from start to finish, Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is a remarkable look at the things that comprise the man-made world we inhabit, and fodder for considering how we can impact our future world by using materials more intelligently.

RATING 7 / 10