Monday, 3 June 2013

Book review - "Stuff Matters" by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World 

Mark Miodownik
Viking (6 Jun 2013)
ISBN-10: 0670920541
ISBN-13: 978-0670920549
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Like most of the generations of metallurgists and materials scientists since the late 1940s, one of the first books the author would have read as an undergraduate was Street and Alexander's Metals in the Service of Man, or simply MITSOM, the staple introduction to our subject for over half a century. Stuff Matters is Mark Miodownik’s attempt to bring materials science (no longer just metallurgy) a public audience through the medium of paper - and no doubt e-Reader Ironically, after the first couple of pages, the reader might very well be pondering whether the book wouldn't have been better entitled Metals in the Disservice of Man (or MITDOM), as Miodownik describes an early and somewhat painful encounter with steel. Forgiveness is swift however, and he spends the next chapter extolling its many virtues, describing its array of different properties and applications and how the material continues to re-invent itself into the 21st Century.

Suggestion for additional chapter on wood :-)
The author uses a picture taken of himself sitting on his roof garden as a means of introducing the different types of materials through short vignettes; never attempting to cover the entire spectrum of those materials, but instead focussing on stories that will hopefully grab the attention of young students and the general public alike. Besides steel, materials covered include the familiar (paper, concrete, ceramics, polymers and glass), the exotic (aerogels, graphene and biomaterials) and the unashamedly tasty – chocolate, which many readers will be surprised to learn is a very highly engineered foodstuff requiring materials science expertise for its production.

For me, the one slightly disappointing omission is that of wood, which I think is deserving of its own chapter. Sitting beside me, waiting patiently for my attention, are my much-treasured Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster. These instruments provided not just two of the most iconic cultural shapes of the late 20th Century, but also its soundtrack (though sadly not by my hand). Stradivarius and Steinway can reasonably lay claim to an even greater impact on human culture, largely through their mastery of a natural material that was almost certainly one of homo sapien’s first object of study in materials science.

But that aside, Stuff Matters is a great read. The delivery is personal, often humorous, and Miodownik allows his materials to speak up for themselves. In this sense, the book is a natural extension of his recent work on television and also of the recently opened Institute of Making. Whilst I won't be throwing my own copy of MITSOM away any time soon, he has successfully taken the baton to produce a book that should continue to attract and engage new generations of materials scientists for, who knows, another half a century - providing the advances in biomaterials he describes in the final chapters can keep him intact for that long.

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