June 14, 2013 6:41 pm

From insult to alchemy

There is more romance to materials science than you would think

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik, Viking, RRP£18, 272 pages

 

No science book I have read has started with such a graphic description of violence against the author. Stuff Matters begins with the teenage Mark Miodownik being stabbed by a razor-wielding maniac on the London Underground.

This proves a perfect opening to his wonderful account of the materials that have made the modern world. His fascination with materials science began as a schoolboy while recovering from the 13cm gash, when he became obsessed with the properties of the steel that had inflicted it.

Miodownik, now a 44-year-old professor of materials science at University College London, is a great scientific communicator, as he showed when delivering the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 2010 and presenting various television programmes. This is his first popular book.

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IN Non-Fiction

He does not hesitate to illustrate his points with personal stories, which distressingly often involve injury to the author. “I haven’t broken every bone in my body but I have had a good try,” he writes.

The chapter on glass, for instance, features an excessively intimate encounter with the material as Miodownik, mesmerised by the olive groves while driving in Andalucía, hit a tractor. Launched through his car windscreen, he was instantly wrapped in the laminated glass, which cracked into a thousand fragments held together by the layer of plastic in the middle. “It felt like hitting a wall of transparent ginger snaps,” he recalls.

Several more of the serious injuries that have punctuated Miodownik’s life feature in the book. For example, the screws that secure his transplanted knee ligament illustrate the extraordinary biocompatibility of titanium metal.

At the top of each chapter is the same photo of Miodownik on his roof terrace, with an arrow pointing to the object whose content he is about to analyse. It is a reasonable device, intended to embed his discussion of materials science in everyday life, though at times he stretches the links a long way.

Take the chapter inspired by the plastic foam in the soles of Miodownik’s trainers. It is devoted to aerogels, which are the world’s lightest foams, indeed its lightest solids, with a density only three times greater than air. Silica aerogels look faintly blue, which is surprising given that they are made from a colourless material. It turns out they are blue because they scatter light in a way similar to the atmosphere. “So when you hold a piece of aerogel in your hand, it is, in a very real way, like holding a piece of sky,” writes Miodownik in characteristically romantic vein.

Aerogels “were created out of pure curiosity, ingenuity and wonder,” he writes. Their applications, for example as superb thermal insulators, still lie mainly in scientific research and particularly in space exploration. But most of the materials discussed in Stuff Matters are very much part of modern life.

I particularly appreciated the section on concrete. I now understand the preparation of the material from powdered and heated rock, the chemical reactions responsible for its hardening and eventual strength, and the bootstrapping process by which the core of skyscrapers can be built, floor by floor. This sounds dull but Miodownik writes well enough to make even concrete sparkle.

The weak point of Stuff Matters is the way it slips occasionally into sloppiness. For example, the superbly sensual chapter about chocolate (which Miodownik eats obsessively every afternoon and every night) concludes by explaining why “the ancient Greek name for the stuff, theobroma, is so appropriate. It means ‘the food of the gods.’” No Mark, in classical times chocolate was enjoyed in America but unknown in Greece – Theobroma cacao is the Linnaean name for the cocoa plant.

But, overall, Stuff Matters shows that a significant new talent has arrived in the ranks of popular science authors. I hope he will avoid further violence and look after himself well enough to write many more books.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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