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Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

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An adventure deep inside the everyday materials that surround us, packed with surprising stories and fascinating science. Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? Why does a paper clip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? These are the sorts of questions that Mark Miodownik a globally-renowned materials scientist has spent his life exploring In this book he examines the materials he encounters in a typical morning, from the steel in his razor and the graphite in his pencil to the foam in his sneakers and the concrete in a nearby skyscraper.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published June 6, 2013

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About the author

Mark Miodownik

4 books351 followers
Mark Miodownik is Professor of Materials and Society at University College London and the Director of the UCL Institute of Making. He was chosen by The Times as one of the top 100 most influential scientists in the UK. Miodownik is a broadcaster known best for giving the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC4. Miodownik is also a writer on science and engineering issues, a presenter of documentaries and a collaborator in interactive museum events.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,904 reviews
December 20, 2020
There were many interesting materials described in the book. The most fascinating by far was Aerogel But the most immediately interesting was chocolate. I hadn't realised it was such a technical marvel. Chocolate was a nasty, fatty, gritty bitter drink for the Incas but through technology has now been transformed into the almost orgasmic pleasure it is today.

When the author was young he would have to bathe after his two older brothers, so he said the water was always cold and it wasn't very pleasant. Then they all saw the Cadbury's Flake ad on tv and agreed that they had never seen anyone look so ... content (ah, innocent youth!). They didn't have a tv (the family was weird) so they had only seen it at friends' houses and described it to their mother as a woman in a bath who puts a Cadbury's Flake in her mouth and looks overcome with happiness. The mother banned them from watching it!

There are six different crystallne states of chocolate, they each contribute that delicious mouth feel of instantly melting chocolate, crispness of the first bite then the softer texture, the smoothness, all the good the good things we love chocolate for. And all of these are reached by heating chocolate to exact temperatures. Only the sixth crystal combines everything together with a mirror surface, that's the one all the cooking shows go on about when talking about 'tempering'.

Cocoa processing with Carib Indians

Living concrete, self-cleaning concrete that scrubs the air and concrete fabric- the next step in building This is phenomenal, or it is to me. Scientists found a type of bacteria that lives in lakes so alkaline that it would burn human skin. One of these bacterium excretes calcite - a constitutent of concrete. They can live dormant encased in rock for decades, but if a crack forms and their is water present, they wake up and start looking for food. So the bacteria and a starch are added to concrete and the bacteria grow and replicate and excrete the calcite that bonds to the concrete building up a mineral structure that spans the crack and sealing it up. Self-healing concrete recovers 90% of its strength.

Think of all the buildings and walls affected with cracks but not to the point of destruction - they could recover without massive, expensive and often life-disturbing repairs.

Textile concrete This is going to be a life saver. Concrete fabric rolls (I'm thinking of so many sculptures I could do) can be dropped from the air over areas of natural disaster. Think of Haiti. When water is added, this fabric can be moulded over a form into any shape required. Concrete tents can be made, weather-proof and sturdy for years to come whilst the city is reconstructed.

Self-cleaning concrete This contains titanium dioxide particles . The particles are transparent so the concrete looks the same but when it absorbs sunlight it creates free radicles which breaks down organic dirt and the residue is blown or washed away by wind or rain.

However, it also reduces the level of nitrogen oxide produced by cars without catalytic converters. So around these concrete buildings the air is cleaner.

I never thought that concrete was interesting in any way, just a solid grey, not very attractive material used in building but then covered up with other materials or paint. Now I find it's fascinating.

The most fascinating chapter so far is on concrete. The Romans discovered a naturally-occuring concrete, Pozzolan concrete (it's found in Pozzuoli ). They realised after some while that concrete that was not under compression, would eventually develop cracks and break down, they never solved this. But they built what is still the world's biggest concrete dome on the Pantheon - its diameter is 142ft and the distance from its apex to the floor is also 142ft meaning it could hold a perfect sphere imagine that! They why and how it was built, are a mystery. (The Capitol dome which is 96ft. and almost 2,000 years later it is still standing, it's cracks not structurally important - the compression keeps it together.

After the Romans concrete was forgotten about for more than a 1,000 years. The problem of concrete shattering was solved by a gardener, Joseph Monier in Paris. He made concrete pots for his big, imported tropical plants, but they weren't any more long-lived than the usual terracotta ones. So he reinforced them with metal. And that worked. (It is part chemical reaction, and part the two materials expand and contract at the same rate to temperatures).

Interesting fact about concrete. It must be mixed with the exact amount of water to be strong, and strength is gained over years, not just as it dries. It doesn't actually dry, there is a reaction between the water and the concrete. Too much water and the concrete will not have enough of the molecules that bind with it, too little and there will be too many free ones. That is why in poor areas of the world like Haiti, all the buildings collapse and in a rich one, like San Francisco, only a few of them do.

Why, the author says, books will not be replaced by pixels on a screen anytime soon.
However, it is unlikely that ebooks will completely supplant books while it lacks paper’s distinctive smell, feel, and sound, since it is this multisensual physicality of reading that is one of its great attractions. "
People love books, more perhaps than they love the written word. They use them as a way to define who they are and to provide physical evidence of their values. Books on shelves and on tables are a kind of internal marketing exercise, reminding us who we are and who we want to be. We are physical beings so it perhaps makes sense for us to identify and express our values using physical objects, which we like to touch and smell as well as read.

This book is so fascinating (5 and a half stars) that half way through I ordered Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
761 reviews3,485 followers
March 11, 2020
Material science can be fascinating, awe-inspiring, and motivate to a completely new look at everyday things and the world around us in general.

See, I am a curious little critter, but for a long time, many too specific fields were unreachable, because there was nothing on the market that could help a layman understand such complex fields as chemistry and all that engineering around how things are made. But finally, the rise of entertaining, hard fun, edutainment has begun.

The chapters are more like short- stories, interesting tales including history, personal anecdotes, and no chance to ever get boring or too broken down or too complex, the perfect balance, as all things should be.

There are some books that deal with everyday things, basics of different fields of science, and they always have the same effect on me. Like good fiction, they open the mind for theories, ideas, inspiration, and, most important, enthusiasm, awe, and mindfulness for the everyday things around us. Of course, there has to be an equilibrium of productive optimization of lifetime and running around enchanted by the smallest grain of anything as if stoned, but we tend to avoid the intuitively deemed unproductive just realizing the world, seeing it as less valuable.

But this closes certain gates to creativity and new, fresh impulses because in finding out new facts about and properties and features of things we used to find normal and have seen and used tens of thousands of times, we expand the mind and its potential.

What often stuns me the most is that there are so many experts in extremely complex endeavors like building a smartphone or any complex machinery, who are actually just using relatively primitive methods, often, like in pharmacy, just knowing that it works and not exactly why and there are so many still unknown factors, especially in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology, that will open options that seem unimaginable today. And we are already so far, so highly developed, have so much individual potential that can be unleashed with all that tools and all of it will seem so 21st century anachronistic to future generations.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:
Profile Image for B Schrodinger.
305 reviews648 followers
May 22, 2014
Materials science, although being closely related to chemistry, can be enough to send even most scientists to sleep. Endless talks of the differing types of ceramics, stress versus strain...zzz.

But have no fear because Mark is here. And Mark makes materials science sexy.

Stuff Matters brings to life the man-made world around us. Suddenly steel, concrete and paper are fascinating when presented in an intelligent, funny and whimsical way. Materials science textbooks seem to be a collection of phase diagrams stitched together and put between some covers, but there are no phase diagrams here (but I would have loved one for chocolate (6 different crystal structures!(The one we usually experience is structure V, makes a nice snap, high melting point))) )) ) .

Yes there is a whole chapter on chocolate.

All throughout Mark tells some fascinating tales, both personal and historical, that add to the flavour of the book. He devotes each chapter to a certain material and even these chapters have varying styles. These differing styles mostly worked well, but I did not really appreciate the screenplay on plastics.

But altogether a rather fascinating book that should keep most scientifically minded or curious types engrossed and amazed at the materials around us. I had never heard of Mark before now, but the book tells that he has regular TV appearances on UK telly. I'm going to have to keep an eye out. If he is half a good a presenter as a writer it should be some great TV.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
765 reviews1,139 followers
June 12, 2019
Element Atom GIF - Element Atom Orbit GIFs

So here you are, sitting on your couch or lying in bed, sipping some tea and reading this review. Imagine that an alien life form suddenly appears, armed with a high tech material-deteriorating gun that is programmed to destroy every man-made material in sight (yeh, I know that's unlikely but just imagine it anyway), aims it at you, and POOF! You are now sitting naked, suspended in mid air, your tablet/laptop gone, your cup of tea gone, the glasses that allow you to read have disappeared. You no longer even have your smartphone to take a picture of this alien, and now no one is going to believe you when you insist that this happened. Instead, you're going to go running outside without a stitch of clothing, the neighbours will call the cops on you, and you will find yourself locked up in a mental ward. Well, that's if the alien doesn't decide to beam you up into its spaceship and perform any number of experiments that will also not be believed by your fellow humans. Sucks, doesn't it? I'm glad I'm not you and glad I've never had the experience of Alien-with-a-Material-Deteriorating-Gun show up in my bedroom. I'm glad the material that makes my life comfortable hasn't been annihilated, and the likelihood of an alien suddenly blasting it all away is pretty much nil.

In Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World materials scientist Mark Miodownik talks about nine different materials that are prevalent in our everyday lives and which would be sorely missed if they suddenly disappeared. He talks about their molecular makeup and why they have the properties they do. He answers such questions as:

•Why razors become dull and paper clips bend

•Why we don't taste the metal of our cutlery

•Why chocolate tastes the way it does, which is nothing like a cocoa bean tastes

•Why our skin cannot tan through glass

•Why elastic is stretchy

Mr. Miodownik talks about graphene and graphite, aerogel and paper, and several other man-made materials. I especially loved learning about aerogel, which I'd never heard of before and find utterly fascinating. It is amazing how it was first made, why it is the way it is, and what it can be used for. There are so many interesting facts in this book and anyone who enjoys learning about "things" will no doubt find this book interesting as well.

This book will not, however, tell you what to do if Alien-with-a-Material-Deteriorating-Gun shows up in your room. My suggestion, if you're worried about the above scenario happening, is... Um.... well, never mind, I can't think of one. Rest assured though, it most certainly will not. Your materials will not disappear and you will not have to insist to an unbelieving world that this happened. I'm sorry to have made you worry, but thank you for reading my review anyway.

(Aerogel, an ultralight material that is 10X stronger than steel and yet weighs only a tiny bit more than air. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech).
Profile Image for Infinite Jen.
80 reviews229 followers
March 9, 2023
Picture this:

Inside a pulchritudinous (i.e. a word for which beautiful would suffice, but would not satisfy my unquenchable desire to cloak reviews in obscurantist jibber jabber in order to increase my infamy amongst clear thinking individuals) you've profaned against the minor deity of lobsterlings and kinesthetic awareness by indulging a pathological case of 'foot drop' (perhaps indicating any of the following underlying issues: multiple sclerosis, stroke, alzheimer's disease, parkinson's disease, diabetus, an injury to the common peroneal nerve, which is located in the lower leg and helps control feeling and movement in the leg, having your knee pierced by an arrow, driving a miniature nativity set into the tender arch of your foot through grain alcohol induced ocular occlusion and motor neuron retardation, having a bolus of methamphetamine shot into your ass by a deranged thai doctor in an effort to treat the worst case of gonorrhea she's ever seen. etcetera), causing your left leg to viciously sabotage your right with a swift kick to the heel.

You’re committed now. Committed to one of those falls that transforms you into a temporal torpedo. An Infinite Stumble (!) One that should be intimately familiar to anyone whose corpus callosum refuses to facilitate gainful communication between hemispheres, and instead appears as a trench. A structural demarcation which signals their perennial opposition, and so your bilateral symmetry acts only to ward against the suspicion that deep inside you are actually trying to kill yourself whenever you navigate bipedally, attempt to lob improvised explosives, or masturbate whilst launching improvised explosives, or dicing carrots: You pitch forward, arms outstretched, sometimes windmilling, the clumsy aerodynamics of your sweaty forehead masticating the surrounding space-time like a Brontosaurus chewing a rugged steak. Your locomotive miscalculations compound rapidly as you stutter-step in a manner both finite and unbounded, crossing the observable universe and arriving back at the inflection point where you inexorably blue yourself (i.e. blew yourself) with such force that your cheeks appropriated the vibrant hue of Maraschino cherries and dismayed shop keepers looked on while you crashed like an embarrassed Kaiju through priceless dioramas of chemical novelty

First you shoulder tackle a rack full of pencils, sending a spray of wood and graphite before you like an enormous rubber band ball wrapped tightly around a bearing inside of which rests a lanky girl surrounded by dirty magazines and cheap booze. You only have a moment to concern yourself over this surplus of scrawling implements in an antique shop before you’re then spellbound by the fact that writing is made so easy by correlations in the fluctuating polarizations of nearby particles, (a consequence of quantum dynamics), which allows the layers of graphite to nuru massage themselves and the papyrus you select to circumscribe the wholly unique depiction of Papa Smurf gooning the boo berries out of his azure winky while looking at stills of a Thunderian Noble in mid nunchaku kata (i.e. Panthro).

Congratulating yourself on pirouetting away from the shelf full of precious metals, you imagine their atomic nuclei embedded in a pudding of delocalized electrons, and understand how this property, the free movement of electrons, allows them to be good conductors of heat and electricity. It also makes for malleability, which allows for the the production of katanas, buttplugs, and titanium busts of Eratosthenes that occupy a valley in which their resemblance to the actual Greek Polymath is of a sort which provokes a nameless dread in prospective visitors. It’s also a source of strength, and you can be sure, if you had collided with them in the manner of those hentai story boarding devices which now litter the textured carpet like magnetic filaments aligning themselves erratically to all the poles of fucked-upness, you would've exploded like a thermally agitated bratwurst and your shoelaces would have snapped like guitar strings (citation needed).

That’s great and all, but we’ve established at this point that you’re not nearly graceful enough to pull off that maneuver without consequence. And, sure enough, you do a little compensatory shuffle and bulldoze into a cabinet of expensive china and priceless Fabergé eggs. Shattering covalent and ionic bonds with the cellular fuel you liberated from a partially developed chicken embryo and the contents of a Crayola Classic Color Crayons in Flip-Top Pack this morning. The breakdown and reassembly of chemical bonds driving you onward like an organic Sybian Sex Machine. The mortified owner of the shop calls out:

“Notice how the ceramics and glasses shatter along regular lines due to the patterns present in their crystal lattices!”

You continue through the exploded shards of history, you smile over your shoulder and toss a thumbs up to this kindly old man who moonlights as a materials scientist, rendering your next collision unavoidable. Lucky for you it’s just a sheet of papyrus, which is held together by microscopic bridges of cellulose called fibrils. You tear through the collective strength of those pithy bastards with a kinetic energy roughly equivalent to a coked out Gary Busey delivering a spinning backfist to an uppity kindergartener. Unfortunately, this ancient sheet of dead plant matter was positioned in just such a way as to obscure the presence of a towering slab of self healing concrete.

The Proprietor: “As you well know. Concrete is quite stout. But it is prone to weathering and cracking. What we have here is Bioconcrete, which is infused with bacteria that allow for the healing of these structural damages. It’s really quite fascinating!

And it would be, if you didn’t painfully ricochet off of it and lose consciousness.

How did this all happen? Well, you got really excited about this book you read called Stuff Matters, which reveals the exotic dimensions of matter that go unappreciated in our daily lives. How, according to the fixed rules of electron exchange dictated by the quantized energy shells surrounding atomic nuclei, ‘stuff’ in all its myriad forms most wonderful and useful, has come to define our trajectory as a species. Elated by this outlook on life, you skipped merrily into the shop, determined to survey stuff at it’s most peculiar and precious. Hoping, just maybe, there would be some aerogel, uranium, or antimatter for sale. You gleefully signal to the man at the counter.

“Hi! You wouldn’t ha....”
Profile Image for Ian.
702 reviews65 followers
May 4, 2020
Reading this book brought to my mind a scene from the 1980s British TV comedy “Blackadder III”, set during the Regency. In the scene in question, Blackadder and the Prince Regent discuss a northern industrialist who is visiting London:

BLACKADDER: He has patented a machine called the Ravelling Nancy.

THE PRINCE REGENT: What does it do?

BLACKADDER: It ravels cotton, Sir.


BLACKADDER: That I cannot say, Sir. I am one of those people who is quite happy to wear cotton but have no idea how it works.

Mark Miodownik’s book doesn’t cover the nature and manufacture of cotton, but he chooses a number of other materials and shares his passion for telling us “how they work”. He bases the book around a photo of himself, and tells the story of 10 materials captured within the photo. These are steel, paper, concrete, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain and rather oddly I thought, medical implants and chocolate. I say oddly since I’ve never really thought of the last two as “materials”. I get of course that implants are made of a material, and I suppose chocolate is one too. Actually the chapter on chocolate answered something that has puzzled me ever since I made a trip to the USA a number of years ago, and out of curiosity decided to try one of the famous Hershey bars. I thought it was revolting and couldn’t understand why American consumers would buy such a vile tasting product. The author not only explains my reaction but suggests that many Americans would feel the same way about British chocolate.

For each chapter the author provides a basic guide to the chemistry involved, as well as a history of the development of the material. For products like concrete and glass he shows how earlier materials have evolved into the high-tech products available today. With steel and porcelain, the story starts with earlier, less complex materials used for the same purposes. The only chapter I didn’t like was the one on plastics. The author wrote this in the style of a fake movie script, which didn’t work for me.

This is a good book for the layman, clear and easily comprehensible, and the author manages to convey quite a lot of his own enthusiasm.
Profile Image for David.
507 reviews35 followers
October 25, 2015
This book has forced me to face the reality that I dislike panoramic popular science so adjust your own expectations accordingly.

This is what he had to say about paper:

“What is it about paper that allows words to be expressed that might otherwise be kept secret? They are written in a private moment, and as such, paper lends itself to sensual love - the act of writing being one of touch, of flow, of flourish, of sweet asides and little sketches, an individuality that is free from the mechanics of a keyboard. The ink becomes a kind of blood that demands honesty and expression, it pours on to the page, allowing thoughts to flow.”

Here’s a thought from my mechanical keyboard - Stick to materials science and leave this sort of soppy writing to the good folks at Harlequin Romance.

When he does stick to materials science we get good stuff like this:

“This new generation of toughened glass has a layer of plastic in its middle, which acts as a glue keeping all the shards of glass together. This layer, known as a laminate, is also the secret behind bulletproof glass, which is essentially the same technology but with several layers of plastic embedded at intervals within the glass. When a bullet hits the material, the outermost layer of glass shatters, absorbing some of the bullet’s energy and blunting its tip. The bullet must then push the glass shards through the layer of plastic beneath it, which flows like tough treacle, thus spreading the force over a wider area than the point of impact. No sooner has it got through this layer than the blunted bullet encounters another layer of glass, and the process starts all over again.

“The more layers of glass and plastic there are, the more energy the bulletproof glass can absorb. One layer of laminate will stop a 9-millimeter pistol bullet, three layers will stop a .44 magnum pistol bullet, eight layers will stop a person with an AK-47 rifle from killing you.���

If the author had gone into greater depth on fewer subjects and eliminated his personal ruminations this would have been a great book.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,722 reviews6,664 followers
December 9, 2014
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World is a nonfiction science book written by materials engineer: Mark Miodownik. I first heard of Stuff Matters after scanning a random list of 2014’s best audiobooks. Figuring I would get a head-start on my 2015 resolution to read more nonfiction, I figured why not? I loved this book! It was absolutely fascinating. Yes, I knew I enjoyed science before reading this book. I took many science-based courses as my “extras” in college just because I found them interesting. But Mr. Miodownik's teaching style blew all of my professors out of the water. If I had him as my professor, I might just have changed my major. His incorporation of personal life experiences and relatable metaphors allowed me to easily grasp all the concepts he referenced.

Each chapter in this book focuses on a different material, but my personal favorite was aerogel. I mean, look at this!



There are a few types of aerogel in existence but Mr. Miodownik focuses mainly on silica aerogel. It's the world's lightest known solid that can support thousands of times its own weight, with a melting point of over 2,000° F. It has typically been used for the purposes of space exploration, but the possibilities are endless! The fact that someone could develop a material like this blew my mind.

Other materials discussed in Stuff Matters includes metal, paper, concrete, chocolate, plastic, glass, graphite, and porcelain. Mr. Miodownik discussed how each material was discovered, how the structure of each material causes it to exist and be useful, how the worlds’ use of each material has evolved past to present through engineering, and the future potential of some of the materials. What was most fascinating (to me anyway) was Mr. Miodownik’s discussion of psychophysics, the study of how humans sensually react to materials. For example, at checkout, some stores package purchases exclusively in paper bags versus plastic (Victoria’s Secret, Yankee Candle, Trader Joe’s, to name a few), which in turn causes many shoppers to feel like they have just embarked on a higher quality shopping experience. But a lot of research went into how consumers respond to the material of paper. The same goes for potato chips. Did you know that there is research devoted only to the sounds of your favorite potato chip packaging?

If anything I've commented on thus far has sparked your interest, then Stuff Matters is right up your ally. All I can say is I want to go back to college now... and if I can find more books like this one, my 2015 resolution will be a breeze!

My favorite quote:
”It is often said that there are very few places left on earth that have yet to be discovered. But those who say this are usually referring to places that exist at the human scale. Take a magnifying glass to any part of your house and you will find a whole new world to explore. Use a powerful microscope and you will find another, complete with a zoo of living organisms of the most fantastic nature. Alternatively, use a telescope and a whole universe of possibilities will open up before you.”
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,710 reviews634 followers
January 23, 2018
Yes, it took me almost two years to read this book and I am glad that I didn't rush through it.

I am a layperson when it comes to materials science and engineering. That, in some measure, makes me grateful for the person who can explain, using my vocabulary, those concepts and relationships that underlie his professional focus. Miodownik is one of the best I have ever come across, and it is clear that he enjoys talking about it with people like me. "This book is for those who want to decipher the material world we have constructed and find out where these materials came from, how they work, and what they say about us."

Miodownik looks at:

He shares history, examples and deeper thoughts about why this all matters. He concludes: "In a very real way, then, materials are a reflection of who we are, a multi-scale expression of our human needs and desires." He certainly has convinced me.
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews611 followers
August 31, 2021
Excellent!! Very brief examination of the materials that make our world livable and comfortable. Miodownik examines organic as well as plastic, wood, steel, cotton, paper, cement etc. It was a primer but went into just enough depth to be fascinating but not overwhelming. I'm kind of in awe about the intriguing writing and detail on so many subjects. I understand the concept of how bulletproof glass is made and why it doesn't shatter on impact. He covered this concept in a few sentences contained in a chapter about glass. He aided in understand by using a personal approach including some memoirish passages that really did accent his points. But don't worry, you will not confuse this book with a memoir. It's a brilliant book that I suspect I will visit over and over again.

4.5 Enlightened Stars

Listened to Audible. Mark Page was an excellent narrator.
Profile Image for Anne.
388 reviews71 followers
May 15, 2022
Stuff Matters is an engaging and easily readable from the start. Each chapter focuses on one material and covers the origin of the material, its history, and tells how it has impacted humanity.

Depending on the chapter, you get more or less history and more or less science. The variety and non-cookie-cutter approach with each chapter retained my interests. Simple ink drawings explain concepts in a basic visual way that I found helpful. Personally, I liked some chapters more than others only because of the material being discussed. However, what I found simply amazing was how each chapter explained about the process from raw material to the product as we know and use today. For some materials, this was a complicated, trial and error, and lucky process.

A few chapters that particularly caught my interest.

Steel: Roman legion buried seven tons of nails to avoid leaving them for an enemy to discover. Steel making gave rise to the myth of Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword. The disposable steel razor blade made barber shops almost obsolete.

Paper: Paper is everywhere and essential to modern life – in the bathroom, kitchen, media, books, documents, for illnesses.

Cement: Essential building material since Roman times. It’s the basis of cities and homes – “50 percent of everything we make.” Have you heard of concrete cloth? It’s a thing used in disaster zones to make temporary cites. Can the future of concrete clean our air like do plants?

Crystals: “Understanding and control of crystals” has impacted many industries, like in chocolate.

Aerogel: Remarkable foam with interesting properties and is an amazing insulator. Could be used for anything from microscopic research to replacing currently used textiles.

Glass: Roman used glass in daily life. Was the one material the Chinese ignored. It was the basis for other discoveries, like glass used in telescopes or microscopes. Simple analogy used to explain why glass is transparent. Glass impacted chemistry the most.

Other chapters include plastic, silicon chips, graphite.

This a wonderful book for the curious. I am curious about everything and have always been drawn to reference books. Research for the author must have been daunting. So many complex disciplines (chemistry, engineering) and materials are made reachable for a layperson. It a book that one my wish to have in their personal library so that they can reread a chapter or two from time to time.

*I started reading a digital book and when my loan ran out, I switched to a print copy while in the queue for another loan of the digital book. My point: I didn’t notice any advantage in one format over the other about viewing the pictures and drawings.
Profile Image for Howard.
1,112 reviews66 followers
July 27, 2021
5 Stars for Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World (audiobook) by Mark Miodownik read by Michael Page.
This was just fascinating for me. I loved the history of all the different materials that are around us every day. The author did a great job of making it interesting and relatable. I’ve already checked out another book by Mark Miodownil, Liquid Rules. I’m really looking forward to listening to it.
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 183 books2,505 followers
June 9, 2013
In my head there is a spectrum of interestingness for science that runs from geology to the really weird bits of physics. I have never yet found a popular science writer, however good, who can make geology truly interesting, while something like quantum physics is so fascinating (and strange) that it takes little effort to make it fascinating (though it’s hard to make it comprehensible). Materials science – what I call ‘how stuff works’ when talking to junior school children generally sits near to geology on that spectrum. But Mark Miodownik has managed the near-impossible and made it a deeply enjoyable read.

I thought things were going to be a bit dire when he starts with the story of how he was attacked as a teen with a razor blade on the London Underground and developed a fascination with the nature of metal, an opinion that wasn’t helped by the rather self-indulgent approach of basing the book around a photograph of the author sitting on his roof terrace. But very soon the superb storytelling took over and we were into the fascinating world of Bessemer and the making of steel. In fact so well are the stories told throughout the book that the author’s photograph of himself becomes an old friend and interesting as a focus. It really works.

The book has ten sections, covering metals, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam (particularly aerogel), plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain and rather bizarrely ‘implant’ covering both bones and artificial items in the body like screws. These are all delightful excursions into the subjects with plenty of diversions along the way.

Two of the sections, paper and plastic, are weaker than the other because Miodownik decided to try a different format for the chapter. Paper has very little content (which is perhaps why he used this approach), consisting primarily of two page spreads describing different types of paper which gets a little repetitive. Plastic is done in the form of a film script (to reflect the importance of plastic film to moving pictures), but this seemed rather strained. Miodownik is also loose with the facts in stating that ‘the biggest diamond yet discovered… is an entire planet five times the Earth.’ That’s not science. All we know is that a star’s variation suggests a companion that has the right sort of density to possibly be mostly diamond. However these blips don’t damage the book’s integrity.

Overall a delightful book on a subject that is relatively rarely written about – you could say the cinderella of the sciences. You will discover facts you didn’t know, how basic but important elements of our lives like cement or chocolate work at the structural level – and along the way will enjoy some excellent storytelling. Recommended.

Review first published on www.popularscience.co.uk and reproduced with permission
Profile Image for Alina.
751 reviews249 followers
February 4, 2018
"What is it about paper that allows words to be expressed that might otherwise be kept secret? They are written in a private moment, and as such, paper lends itself to sensual love—the act of writing being one fundamentally of touch, of flow, of flourish, of sweet asides and little sketches, an individuality that is free from the mechanics of a keyboard. The ink becomes a kind of blood that demands honesty and expression, it pours on to the page, allowing thoughts to flow."

“For, in the end, Brearley did manage to create cutlery from stainless steel, and it’s the transparent protective layer of chromium oxide that makes the spoon tasteless, since your tongue never actually touches the metal and your saliva cannot react with it; it has meant that we are one of the first generations who have not had to taste our cutlery.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,516 followers
April 21, 2016
This is an entertaining, engaging book about many of the everyday--and rare--materials that are in our world. Some of the materials occur naturally like diamond and coal. But the majority of materials discussed in the book are man-made, and Mlodownik makes them all sound fascinating! He describes steel, plastic, chocolate, glass, ceramics, silicon chips, graphene, elastic, graphite, paper, concrete, silverware and porcelain. And even though most of these materials seem so mundane, Miodownik has a gift of telling their stories in an entertaining way.

My favorites? Well, at the top of the list is silicon aerogel, a man-made material that has remarkable properties. As you can see in the picture below, it is translucent, as it is composed 98% of air. But it is strong, and is a fantastic heat insulation. Note in the picture that the matches are sitting on a circular disk, supported by a translucent rectangular plate that seems to have no edges. The heat of the blow torch does not reach the matches!
The chapter about chocolate is also very interesting, as it is produced in a complex process. Graphene is very interesting, too, as is the discussion about isotopes of various materials.

Mlodownik makes each material come alive, through history and entertaining anecdotes. I definitely recommend this book to all those who would like some light non-fiction.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. The narrator, Michael Page, reads this book well and helps to keep it fresh and alive.
Profile Image for Crystal.
205 reviews8 followers
March 14, 2022
Non Fiction>Material Science
I listened to the audiobook because I had a long drive ahead of me. I might go back to this and read it for real. This is a book that really highlights how the author's tone and style matters so much. Yes, non fiction books are about the content but this would have been a completely different book by a different author.
I read this as a Book of the Month with the Non Fiction Book Club March/April 2022. Fantastic!
This is a book I would recommend to pretty much anyone--non-readers, non-non fiction readers, readers, non fiction readers...everyone. We all interact with so many materials every single day and it really gives some perspective on what these materials mean to our world.
Are diamonds forever? Is paper smooth? What makes disposable razors possible? How have fillings at the dentist changed in the last 25 years? Plus a mini screenplay (lol...the author really wanted to tell the story of plastics in a unique way)!! I thought the most fascinating section was on carbon fiber but others have raved about the diamond and paper sections.

Just read it!
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,533 reviews306 followers
June 4, 2018
Good book, cool but a little skimpy. Not quite up to the hype. 3.5 stars, rounded up. Read 6-2014.
Profile Image for Merve Eflatun.
57 reviews42 followers
June 21, 2019
Yazarın tek fotoğraf üzerinden ilerleyen bir malzeme tarihi aktarımı yapması oldukça incelikli bir düşünce. Biraların ilk kez cam bardakta servis edilmesinden, kitap kokusunun oluşumuna kadar geniş bir bilgi yelpazesinden, malzeme ile değişen dünya tarihi okuması yapmaya çalışılmış. Ben kişisel merakımdan okudum ancak keyfi de okunabilir.
Profile Image for Abeselom Habtemariam.
46 reviews42 followers
June 21, 2022
Being a Material Engineer myself, I was excited at the prospect of reading this book. Mark Miodownik is a professor of Materials and Society at University College London. Making use of his research experiences and an extensive knowledge in Material Science, he has managed to give the reader a glimpse into the labyrinthine and engrossing world of material science. The chapters of the book are themed after some of the everyday materials seen in the picture of Mark drinking a cup of tea on the roof of his flat. Materials ranging in complexity from concrete to aerogels are subsequently presented in a witty and engaging style that science communicators should have, in order to write a book.

Usually the question that hangs over popular science books is the ability of the author to make the subject matter palatable to the general reader. In this regard, I think the book passes with flying colors. The second question is the entertainment factor. Can the book be made into an engaging read? This is usually a matter of taste. I found some chapters like the ones on Aerogels and Body Implants gripping. Others, like the one on plastics, not so much. But, the book as a whole is certainly worth a read
Profile Image for Pete.
766 reviews53 followers
December 13, 2014
Stuff Matters (2014) by Mark Miodownik is a really excellent work of non-fiction that combines a narrative that hangs the facts together, in this case a photo of the author, with a lot of really interesting facts. The book is about materials and Miodownik as a materials scientist is in an ideal position to point out how important materials are in the modern world. The book is also, critically, a delight to read.
The chapters are Indomitable; about Stainless Steel, Trusted on paper, Fundamental on concrete, Delicious on chocolate, Marvellous on foam, Imaginative on plastic, Invisible on glass, Unbreakable on diamond, graphite and graphene, Refined on porcelain, Immortal on implants and Synthesis which summarises the book.
Each chapter is full of new things to learn and interesting stories about the use and history of materials and the people who discovered the materials as well as short, interesting tales about the author himself.
The book is up there with the best non-fiction by Michael Lewis, Steven Pinker, Ben Goldacre and Simon Winchester. Material science is a really important aspect of the modern world that is sadly neglected and this book covers this subject superbly.
Profile Image for Cherie.
1,278 reviews113 followers
November 24, 2014
Well written, just sciency enough to keep me interested without going overboard on the science.
I learned something in each of the topics covered.

My favorite sections were on chocolate and carbon. The one I learned the most from was on glass, and the one I liked least was on cement. My geek self is happy to have been recommended this book and for finally reading it.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,113 reviews
September 29, 2015
Almost everything we touch has had some form of human interaction to change it from one form to another. Some of these interactions are simple, involving the changing of the shape and form, others are much more complex and involve heat and chemical interaction. Using a photo of himself drinking a coffee and eating a bar of chocolate, Miodownik takes us through a range of different materials that you are likely to come across every day, such as glass, steel, plastics, concrete, paper and even chocolate.

Each chapter takes one aspect of he picture, for example the steel legs of the table, and then he explores the social and historical detail behind the material, from how it was mined, how they used it way back in history, as well as the technological advances that happen to make the material what it is today. Some of the material he writes about are not what you would expect, chocolate for example, but in this he explains some of the chemical processes that are used to change the bitter, fibrous beans to the seductive food that is chocolate. Paper too is an unusual choice, but when you think about it, this is a material that meant that people no longer needed to rely on oral traditions and could communicate with words and drawings and pictures.

There was never a plastic age, as we have had a stone age and iron age in the past, but I think that you could safely classify the post war years in that way. The first plastics were nitrocellulose, and were used to replace Ivory billiard balls, where as now we have a whole raft of plastic types to choose from, and they can be formed and moulded in many ways. Glass to is an amazing substance. As bill Bryson said in Notes from a Small Island: call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows. And it is an amazing material. Naturally fragile, it can be made much tougher by tempering it or by adding thin layers of plastic it becomes bullet proof. Concrete, like glass was a material that the Romans had, whilst they didn’t have the fine control and understanding that the modern chemists and engineers have, they knew how to build with it, so much so that the Pantheon still is the largest unreinforced dome in the world and it is 2000 years old.

A morning coffee wouldn’t be the same with out a cup to drink it out of, and Miodownik looks at the history of china and porcelain. The finest porcelains were perfected by the Chinese who had almost transparent cups. After the Europeans stole the technology from them, we developed our own industry here using China clay mined in Cornwall. Other material include carbon, available in the ludicrously expensive form of diamond and the much cheaper, and more useful form of graphite.

Miodownik is well qualified to write this too, he is Professor of Materials at UCL, and his boundless enthusiasm for any and all materials comes across vividly in this book, just like you would see him on the telly in fact. Even though he is vastly experienced and knowledgeable, this is a popular science book, and really does not go into a huge amount of depth on each subject. The writing style is chatty, which will annoy some people no doubt, and I am not sure who convinced him that doing the chapter on plastics as a play would work, because it doesn’t. All that said, this is a good introduction to the things that we see, use, sit on, write with and drink from every day; 3.5 stars though.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,859 reviews421 followers
January 21, 2021
Mark Miodownik, author of 'Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World', writes in a conversational style about materials, using history, personal anecdotes and concise science facts to explain what the everyday stuff we use to eat, sit on, read and work in is made of. Despite the easygoing explanations, he is a man who knows 'stuff'. Miodownik is a professor at University College in London, which has an extensive materials library.

He has logically organized by chapter facts and stories of a particular material, such as paper, steel, cement, rubber, glass, foam, chocolate and denim. There are simple, but understandable hand-drawings as well as photos.

One of the things I learned about cement is some cement is being experimentally infused with a type of bacteria which eats starch that has been embedded into the original cement; and soon the little buggers are defecating mineral calcite, a component of cement. Thus, 'self-healing' cement was invented, with bacteria reducing structural cement cracks which occur over time! While proven to work in the lab, I guess commercial versions are in the future. Still, cement excreting bacteria curing the problem of the deterioration of reinforced cement tickles my sense of the absurd! Scientists are wonderful.

The level of science is the kind professors teach to art majors, so I suspect the book will not satisfy STEM readers. However, it is a cute little book with cute little stories about amazing materials we use everyday casually and thoughtlessly. Who knew knowing 'stuff' could be fascinating? Pun intended, gentle reader ; )
Profile Image for Jacob.
179 reviews28 followers
October 6, 2016
Are you one of those people who once excitedly sat down to watch "How it's Made" only to be utterly disappointed by the fact that it's basically just a bunch of B-reel of machines doing everything and no narrated exploration as to what chemicals are used along with the whys and hows that allowed them to settle on their usage to begin with?

Well, my strange kin, that is what this book is. It is the whys, wheres, and whens of a some of the most common place items and objects with enough tangential information drops to make this once disappointed man all fuzzy with electric fluttering of joy.

Miodownik has written a humorous, informative, and anecdotal book that is as fun for us to read as it was for him to write. If this could be expanded and turned into a science textbook I would throw myself back into college to get my Teacher's Certificate and teach the class myself.

You'd do that for me, right, Mark? Mark? Mr. Miodownik? Damn.
Profile Image for Jacob.
407 reviews107 followers
August 28, 2016
Reread while in London August 2016.

"Quit telling me "interesting" things about cement and concrete!" -Shae

The kind of book that makes you wonder at the world again. This week I've caught myself holding grains of sand up close to my eye, gently stroking glass, trying to taste stainless steel, and staring at everyday concrete like I'm in the Louvre.
Profile Image for Ankit Goyal.
50 reviews33 followers
April 11, 2016

"We inhabit an immaterial world, too: the world of our minds, our emotions, and our perceptions. But the material world, although separate, is not entirely divorced from these worlds—it strongly influences them, as anyone knows."

Brilliant , well written , humorous , wide encompassing! Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik covers all the bases in a fast paced , engaging and humorous style which actually even includes a screenplay penned by the author to bring alive the invention of plastics . Bring Alive ! That is the biggest takeaway from the book as Mark literally animates the physical world of materiality with carefully researched and humorously narrated anecdotes.

"Along the way, we find that, as with people, the real differences between materials are deep below the surface, a world that is shut off from most unless they have access to sophisticated scientific equipment."

Mark sets out his philosophy in the opening few pages itself . He is crystal clear that the account is not one merely of the physical and functional properties of materiality . Each and every material he discusses is brought to life in vivid hues in its full historical , cultural , emotional and philosophical connotations. He even has a name for such an approach to the physical , an institutionalised academic discipline , Psychophysics .

"But there is also a scientific discipline especially dedicated to systematically investigating our sensual interactions with materials. This discipline, called psychophysics, has made some very interesting discoveries."

He sets the tone of such an approach at the very outset and we strangely find the chapters labelled Indomitable , Trusted, Fundamental , Delicious ( we thought we were reading material science ? )etc. for each separate material that he takes up . Such a welcome perspective really keeps one hooked . For example , he says about stainless steel :

"It reflects back to us our feeling of modernity, of being clinical, and of having conquered grime, and the dirt and messiness of life. Of being indomitable ourselves."

And again , about paper :

The yellowing and disintegration of paper are disturbing, and yet, like all antiques, paper gains an authenticity and power from its patina of age. The sensual impressions of old paper allow you to enter the past much more readily, providing a portal to that world."

This is not to say that he has missed out on the technical and commercial details of his materials . Again , he has conveyed the sheer wide encompass and impact of these wonderful materials in anecdotal style :

"Without plastics, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—and all other movies —would never have existed; neither would the cinema matinee, nor the cinema itself, and our visual culture would be very different indeed. So although I am no fan of excessive plastic packaging, I hopeI’ve shown that, if there is one place a plastic candy wrapper should feel safe and appreciated, it is to be a movie theatre."

And again ,

"Vinyl changed music, how we recorded it and how we listened to it, and along the way it created rock stars"

And Mark also voices his reflections on interesting alternate history scenarios:

"Whether it was the lack of these two crucial optical instruments ( microscope and telescope) that prevented the Chinese from capitalizing on their technological superiority and instigating a scientific revolution, as happened in the West in the seventeenth century, is impossible to say."

All in all , a very well written book that would satiate both general and technical readers alike !
Profile Image for TS Chan.
693 reviews861 followers
January 24, 2019
Who would have thought a book on material science can be so fascinating? I loved how the author brought in his personal perspective and stories into the narrative. Materials, such as steel, paper, concrete, glass and chocolate (to name a few covered in this book), do affect each and every one of us on a personal level; although we tend to take most of it for granted given its normality in our quotidian lives. Also, far from being dry, the author has an expressive writing style which makes reading this book most enjoyable.

One of the most fundamental of these material structures is the atom, but it is not the only structure of importance. At the larger scales there are dislocations, crystals, fibers, scaffolds, gels, and foams, to name a few that have been featured in this book. Taken in isolation, these structures are like characters in a story, each contributing something to its overall shape. Sometimes one character dominates, but it is only when they are put back together that they explain fully why materials behave the way they do.

Just like characters in a story - no character can stand on their own, and it is through interaction with others that makes them who they are. Similarly, we all have relationships with our material world and through our interaction with our smartphones, laptops, clothes, books, writing instruments, eating utensils, drinking receptacles, etc, etc, they bring personal meaning to our daily lives.
Profile Image for Rajat Ubhaykar.
Author 1 book1,613 followers
May 11, 2020
A fascinating (and fun) journey into the history and science behind the materials that make up much of our world today - steel, plastic, glass, concrete, chocolate, ceramics - 'stuff' that we usually take for granted. Having read this book, I don't think I will look at the material world in the same way again. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,768 reviews213 followers
February 5, 2023
Mark Miodownik examines the materials that surround us, including chocolate, concrete, foam, glass, graphite, implants, paper, plastic, porcelain, and steel. The author dives deep into the scientific properties and history of each. He also relates his own experiences with these substances. I have to admit being surprised at the inclusion of implants and chocolate, as they seem a bit different than the others (but still interesting). There is an unusual “play” in the middle, involving plastics, which did not quite work as well as the other chapters, but I guess he was going for creativity. It is written in a lively manner, accessible, and entertaining manner.
Profile Image for Lemar.
658 reviews52 followers
July 18, 2016
This fussy Brit is a person who follows through, who engages his curiosity. When we speak, write and arguably think, we use words as our material. Words matter. In this book he chooses several ubiquitous materials that matter to all of us and inform our lives. His unique gift is that in examining their origin and molecular structure, he adds to the sublime presence of materials like concrete and chocolate rather than deconstructs their mystery.
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