Mark Miodownik | Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World | Penguin | 2013 | 352 pp. ISBN: 9780141970745| Hardback: UK £18.99
Mark Miodownik | Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World | Penguin | 2013 | 352 pp. ISBN: 9780141970745| Hardback: UK £18.99

How many times have scientists tried to explain what they do on a daily basis to their family and friends just to be met by looks of befuddlement? Or, after the third sentence be interrupted by a simple “dear, you’ve lost me”? Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials & Society at University College London, has managed to write a book that will help materials scientists explain materials science at the Christmas dinner table. And he's managed to do so in a manner that scientists will find entertaining, but neither patronizing nor simplistic.

Stuff matters is indeed entertaining, partly because it is filled with personal anecdotes that show how science and real life are intertwined, and partly because the tone and style chosen by the author are free of major constraints. So even when reiterating facts learnt during various lectures all those years ago, it reads well and provides a refreshing reminder of what pushed us to become scientists.

The whole book revolves around a single photo of Mark Miodownik on the roof of his apartment block in central London; every chapter focusing on a class of materials that make up part of the depicted scene. This concept acts as a constant reminder of how materials, and hence materials science, underpin anything and everything humans do: things as simple as sitting on a chair and drinking a cup of tea and savoring a piece of chocolate, to using computers and flying across the world in (relative) comfort. Actually, materials are so central to our lives that we have come to see them as mundane, forgetting their history and their scientific value. Some of these materials were, at some point, incredibly technologically advanced and responsible for triggering revolutions in human behavior.

While keeping the perspective of a materials scientist with a keen eye for engineering, the author is a story-teller, and the tales of some of these materials make fascinating reading. Steel, concrete or plastics all have their origins in the lives of individual human beings, and they have found their way into our modern world thanks to their capacity to evolve – concrete can now heal itself. Beyond traditional materials, Mark Miodownik shares his passion for materials of all kinds: carbon-based materials, from carbon fibers to graphene, the omnipresent concrete that surrounds us everywhere we live, to potential bionic body replacements potentially based on one of the author's favorite toys: a three-dimension printer.

Materials science is complex: phenomena happening through the whole structural hierarchy, from atoms to nano to micro and beyond, all combine to provide a material with a unique set of properties. This may be best illustrated in the surprising chapter focused on chocolate. Chocolate is a material and as such its properties, from structure to taste, are material properties – it can be puzzling to most that the same principles ruling the properties of the concrete used in modern construction also deliciously apply to such thing as chocolate.

Stuff matters highlights how materials are an account of the state-of-the-art of knowledge and skills at a given point in history. On the one hand, the book justifies the need for conserving materials, in a similar way we do with other forms of human achievements, on the other hand, it is a statement that materials are at the core of the man-made world and materials science must thus become more central to our society.

Stuff matters is not only a good holiday read for scientists eager to get back to their research after their Christmas break, it makes materials science accessible to most with references to popular culture, from ads to movies, and real life examples that anyone can relate to. Importantly, this book complements Mark Miodownik's sustained effort to smartly popularize materials science, which is key to generate interest in younger generations and attract attention to our discipline which can surely benefit from broader public support.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2013.10.016