Saturday, August 15, 2015

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was recommended by a law school classmate who shares my love of nerdy knowledge. 

Mark Miodownik is listed as “Professor of Materials and Society” at University College London. As far as google can tell me, he is likely the only such professor in the world. He is also the director of the Institute of Making, which sounds like the sort of place me and my oldest son could visit and never return from. Which, essentially, makes him the perfect person to write a book that makes concrete and porcelain (among other things) into fascinating topics of discussion.

I remember being fascinated with this sort of thing since I was in grade school. In particular, I remember reading articles on superconductors and “Buckyballs” (back when they were slang for “Fullerenesand not magnetic toys), and being pretty the only kid I knew who could - and would - explain the role of coke in steel refining. So yeah, this book was pretty well my sort of book to begin with. My only real complaint is that it is too short, and not filled with quite enough nerdy detail. But that isn’t really the point. This book is aimed at the more casual reader, who really hadn’t thought about paper and celluloid and carbon fiber.

Stuff Matters looks at ten materials that we take for granted every day in our modern world, and examines their history, structure, and the unique properties that make them what they are. When we think of the benefits of modern life, we may well think of important things like sanitation, the rule of law, human rights, modern medicine, and so on, but we often forget the way that modern materials have revolutionized life. Indeed, many of those things in the first list would not be possible without these materials. (Would modern ideals ever have taken hold without widespread literacy? And would literacy have been widespread without paper?)

I obviously cannot do justice to the topics nearly as well as Miodownik, so I won’t try to recap the book. There are a few things worth mentioning, however.

I loved the extended description of sword making, particularly the section on the Samurai sword-making tradition. It is amazing how far back the artisans of that craft were making incredible steel long before the rest of the world figured out how to do it. Essentially, the swords have multiple layers of different steels, so that the sword can be both hard (for sharpness) and tough (to avoid shattering) at the same time. (The author doesn’t mention the Damascus steel process, which had similar results, unfortunately. But, the book wasn’t intended to cover the nuances of sword making, I suppose.) 

Damascus Steel sword. I want one, even if I have no use for it. Maybe a kitchen knife set?

Another nugget about steel I hadn’t noted before was the idea that our “silverware” is tasteless. It adds nothing to our food - and therefore lets the flavor of the food shine through without coloration. Prior to stainless steel, this would have been a benefit unavailable to most people, as only ivory would have provided a similar experience.

The chapter on concrete was fascinating. The most interesting bit to me was the explanation for self-healing concrete, which uses bacteria to excrete calcite. How fun is that?

Not all of the materials discussed are structural. Chocolate also gets a turn in the spotlight. I’ve always known that I should never ask my wife to choose between me and chocolate. I do not want to know the answer. Actually, I kind of do know, and that’s why I don’t want my suspicions confirmed. And guess what? Miodownik cites a study that explains why. Apparently, the physiological response of the body and brain to chocolate is stronger and longer lasting than a passionate kiss. So yes, I have more evidence of the need to keep chocolate on hand at all times.

Glass is another naturally interesting topic. Like steel, it is harder to make than one would think, requiring high temperatures and special ingredients. Interestingly, there are instances of glass being made naturally. And not just volcanic glass - obsidian - either. A lightning bolt can do it, for example, forming “fulgurite.” These aren’t particularly strong or pure, however. A better version is known to exist in some ancient Egyptian jewelry. It is believed that it was formed by a meteor impact. A similar glass was made during the Trinity nuclear tests in Nevada. Crazy stuff. 


The chapter on porcelain was interesting for a personal reason. The author uses the famous Wedgwood porcelain company. On one side of my family, we have Wedgwood blood. If I recall, it is something like a distant cousin of Josiah Wedgwood - possibly an illegitimate son of one of the more famous members. Or something like that. Whatever the case is, we are from the decidedly non-rich, non-famous branch of the family. But be that as it may, my late grandmother was very proud of being a Wedgwood.

This is a fun book, particularly as an introduction to materials science. These substances surround us, and make our lives possible - and better - but we really don’t think much about them. After reading this book, you can never look at things quite the same way.


  1. If you're distantly related to the Wedgwoods, you might also be distantly related to Charles Darwin:

    But at least you're not inbred. :-)

    1. That's all quite interesting.

      The only (semi-)famous person I know I am related to distantly is former congressman Bob Dornan, who I believe is like a 6th cousin or something. That branch of my family has traced the line back many generations, as the German mennonites kept good records.

      Speaking of inbreeding, I have German mennonites on both sides of my family, so, if my dad's family had kept records as well as my mom's, it is entirely probable that my parents have a common ancestor. It would have to be 5 or 6 degrees minimum, however.

      There is one known instance of *almost* inbreeding however. (Almost, because there is no actual common blood.) My great aunt married into a family. My aunt then later married my great-uncle-by-marriage's nephew. So the families intermarried at two different generations. However, the lines of descent do not mix, so it isn't (genetically speaking) inbreeding.

      How's that for a fun fact?