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The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
by Mark Miodownik
Mark Miodownik is an enthusiast of the right sort. His scientific specialism may sound obscure — he is professor of materials and society at University College, London — but anyone who has seen him on Dara O Briain’s Science Club on BBC2 will know that he brings the subject alive with his intelligence and excitable charm. Those qualities are very much on display in this book, which brings together 10 materials, and reveals the remarkable internal properties that make them so useful to us, and so meaningful. Some are “impossibly exotic” manufactured substances, such as aerogel and grapheme, while others, including glass and concrete, we tend to take for granted.
Take stainless steel. It might seem ordinary to the point of dullness, but Miodownik recaptures the wonder of its existence. It was discovered accidentally by a British scientist, Harry Brearley, in 1913. He had been trying out recipes for metal alloys in the hope of making British gun barrels harder, and throwing failed specimens in the corner of the lab.
One day, he noticed some metal gleaming in the rusting heap. By chance, he had hit on the correct ratio of added carbon and chromium. Thanks to Brearley, we are among the first generations not to taste our cutlery — because the protective layer of chromium oxide does not react with the mouth. Now, of course, stainless steel is everywhere, from our suspension bridges to our kitchen sinks.
Insightfully, Miodownik comments that the material itself reflects “our feeling of modernity, of being clinical…of being indomitable”. We are less keen on concrete. But even this irredeemably “cheap, functional, grey, dreary, stained, inhuman” material becomes fascinating.
Bright spark: Mark Miodownik (Francesco Guidicini) It turns out to be not modern at all, but a Roman invention. With their miracle liquid stone, the Romans made the Pantheon the world’s largest unreinforced dome — which it still is, 2,000 years later. We then forgot about concrete for 1,000 years after the Romans, but are making up for lost time. There is now self-cleaning concrete, which uses titanium dioxide on its surface to break down organic dirt, which is then washed away. There is also self-healing concrete, which is filled with a particular kind of dormant bacterium; if a crack forms and water gets in, the bacteria wake up and start excreting a concrete-like mineral, which — ta-da! — fills up the crack again.
Concrete may become a magical thing in Miodownik’s hands, but it is the futuristic materials that will elicit the gasps here. One of them, aerogel, looks like a miracle: a piece of cloudy sky you can hold in your hand. Samuel Kistler, an American farmer-turned-chemist, discovered it in the 1930s. He worked out that ordinary jelly was water held together by a kind of internal skeleton of gelatin. After finding a way to extract the water from this skeleton, Kistler then began experimenting with other materials. Egg white made a stupendously light meringue. Silicon dioxide, though, the main ingredient of glass, created something more astounding: aerogel, the lightest solid in the world.
This well-named material has now been used in napalm bombs, drilling operations and as a net to catch space dust travelling at 18,000km an hour. It can withstand a hammer or a blowtorch, but you cannot feel its weight in your hand. Could there be a substance more inspiring or desirable? I actually tried to buy some online: a marshmallow-sized piece costs $35.
Almost as compelling is graphene, which was first made in 2003 by using sticky tape to progressively peel away layers of graphite. It is a form of graphite made so slender that it is one invisible carbon atom thick — meaning that it is two-dimensional. Despite this, it is the stiffest, strongest and most heat-conducting material in the world, and is currently predicted to “usher in a new age of engineering” — even replacing the silicon chip.
Not every chapter of the book works. The series of micro-essays on different kinds of paper tell you little you didn’t already know. The jokey Wild West screenplay explaining the history of celluloid falls flat. But the most surprising of Miodownik’s 10 materials, chocolate, handsomely repays its inclusion.
This remarkable foodstuff is so uniquely attractive to us partly because its cocoa-butter crystals are engineered by chocolatiers to melt specifically at 34C, the temperature of our mouth. When it does melt, chocolate releases a “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavours” — 600 exotic flavour molecules, to be precise, along with doses of caffeine, cannabinoids and theobromine, a psychoactive stimulant highly toxic to dogs.
Aerogel: the best insulator in the world (SSPL/Science Museum) If that sounds slightly frivolous, it isn’t. Miodownik’s mission is to show how materials shape our lives. Take glass, which was perfected, inevitably, by the Romans. Without glass, there was a good reason that “windows” had their name — the word comes from the Old Norse for “wind eye”. Glass has changed our wine (the colour became important), our appearance (thanks to usable mirrors) and our very beliefs — it was microscopes, telescopes and the humbler but no less crucial test-tube and glass beaker that enabled science. Miodownik wonders whether Chinese cultural “disdain” for glass ensured that the scientific revolution was not an eastern one.
It would be easy to mine this book for pub nuggets. There is a planet in the Milky Way five times the size of earth that is one, giant diamond. All the gold ever dug up would fit inside a large house. But it is the 11th and last chapter, Synthesis, that makes this book something more than a compendium.
It is a vision of the universe as seen by a materials scientist. Instead of the old schoolroom triad of physics, chemistry and biology, we are offered a dizzying picture of the structures inside materials, a kind of Jacob’s Ladder leading up through the scales from the quantum and atomic levels to the nanoscale, microscale and the macroscale that we can only just see.
Observing materials in this way, as if seen from the inside looking outwards (looking towards their final use by us, at the human scale) makes even the most everyday substance seem exciting. So while this is more a jaunty primer than a hugely ambitious book, it does deliver most satisfyingly on what it promises: it makes you feel that stuff really, really matters.
Aerogel, the lightest material in the world, has some extraordinary properties. Typically 99.8% air, it becomes almost invisible when placed against a light background (it’s blue against a dark one) and is the best insulator known to man. Its chief drawback is cost: it is prohibitively expensive to produce.
More books on Inventions
In the late 19th century, as a craze for pool spread across the western United States, pool equipment makers faced an uncertain future. Business was great, but if someone didn’t invent an alternative to ivory from which to make pool balls, the price of ivory was going to spike so high that saloon bars weren’t going to be able to afford them any more. No sooner than it had been invented and embraced by roughnecks from Denver to San Francisco, pool was in danger of becoming a rich man’s sport.
In the early 21st century, a British brain-box with a highly evolved sense of justice and not a bad sense of humour seized on this scenario — and a few long-forgotten news reports related to it — as the basis for one of the most diverting chapters in a work of popular science that you are likely to read for a long while.
Those news reports concerned claims that saloon bar patrons were reaching for their guns and sometimes firing them when startled by miniature explosions triggered by colliding experimental pool balls. To save on ivory, the balls were coated with a primitive cellulose-based plastic. The trouble was, it was flammable and occasionally explosive.
Mark Miodownik, who as well as writing Stuff Matters has helped to assemble a huge and important collection of inanimate materials at University College London, doesn’t tell you this in boring old prose. He puts it in a screenplay — a screenplay in defence of plastic, offered as a long-delayed response to an angry man he once met in a queue for a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who complained about having to buy his cinema sweets in plastic rather than paper bags. He’s a bit mad, is Mr Miodownik. He dates his obsession with materials back to 1985, when he was attacked by a vagrant with a razor blade, and distracted himself from the trauma with monologues, some spoken out loud to his bewildered parents, about the amazing properties of the steel that pierced his clothing; the paper clip that held together the police report on the incident and the spoon that delivered to his mouth his mother’s soup that frazzled evening.
Then again, a certain sort of madness may be necessary to pull off what he has attempted here, which is a wholesale animation of the inanimate. Occasionally the author’s narrative devices fall short. He returns to razor blades, for instance, in a chapter that opens and closes with an encounter with an Irish drinker who claims to have stumbled on a way to sharpen them. Has he? Probably not, but we’re left to infer it. I’m dim enough to wish I’d been told.
More often, Miodownik achieves precisely what he sets out to, which is to make the case that the materials we have made are as extraordinary, and as revealing of us, as the materials we are made of. Oh, and they’re all rather rare. Eight of the 94 known elements account for 98.8 per cent of the Earth’s mass, and carbon isn’t one of them.
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