Marvelous Materials

Mark Miodownik, author of Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, is the kind of guy you’d want to have teaching a science course for non-science majors. He is passionate about the importance of his subject and enthusiastic in sharing that information with others. Fortunately for readers, he is also a gifted storyteller.

Miodownik, a professor at University College London and Director of the Institute of Making, is widely traveled. His book takes us along on a trip to explore a world of marvelous materials. Along the way, we view many everyday materials in completely new ways and learn about some materials we may have never heard of before.

The first three chapters on steel, paper, and concrete show us how fundamental those products are to modern life and explain things most of us take for granted. In the first chapter, we learn why stainless steel doesn’t rust—because chromium in the metal reacts with oxygen before the iron atoms can, forming a transparent coating of chromium oxide. Chapter 2 describes how the Roman invention of the codex revolutionized the storage and sharing of information. Stacking individual sheets of paper between stiff covers and binding them along the spine allowed for text on both sides of each sheet, enabling many scribes to work on the same codex at once. Sections could also be accessed quickly via page or chapter numbers. These characteristics made the codex, now known as the book, infinitely superior to the scroll which it replaced. In Chapter 3, the author explains that, although concrete hardens to a reasonable strength within 24 hours of being mixed with water and poured, the hardening process continues long after that, and the full strength of a concrete structure often takes years to develop.

There are additional chapters on plastic, glass, carbon (in all its forms), porcelain, replacement body parts, and, of all things, chocolate. Miodownik’s writing makes the science of materials entertaining and relevant.

When was the last time you read a non-fiction book with the same pleasure as a murder mystery or a psychological thriller? Although short chapter sizes make this book perfect to read a little at a time, you’ll want to finish it in one sitting!

Photo credit: Mark Miodownik ©Ruby Wright

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