Review of "Stuff matters" by Mark Miodownik

Exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world

"Stuff matters" by Mark Miodownik, ISBN 978-0544236042

Each chapter of this wonderful book starts with the same photograph: the author is sitting on the roof deck of his London house, reading a book and drinking tea from a porcelain cup. Each photograph has single arrow pointing at an everyday object: book, cup, pencil, etc. Only instead of the object's name, the arrow is labeled with its material: paper, porcelain, graphite, etc. The chapter then discusses the material: its history, importance, human attitude towards the material. For example, the paper is trusted, while glass is invisible.

My favorite chapter was "Imaginative" about plastics. It was written as a movie script about the invention of the celluloid - the first commercial plastic. Originally created to cover billiard balls and thus replace super expensive ivory, nowadays celluloid is only used to make ping pong balls and movie film (thus the direct connection to the movie script format).

The book ends with the discussion of scales. The material properties are determined by its structure at various scales: atomic, nano (nanotubes), micro (crystal), macro (cellulose), miniature (fabric) and human (objects themselves). Only the modern technology allows us to directly manipulate the first 3, thus wealth of new materials that appeared recently. The challenge is to connect various scales and bring the interesting properties from small to human scales to make them useful.

The author also touches upon the increasingly blurry line between living and non-living materials. Again, this depends on the scale: both bone and rocks are similar at atom and nano levels, while very different at micro levels. Only now we started crossing the boundary by creating hybrids, such as self-healing cement, or cartilage implants.

The book is written very well, the examples are interesting. I only wish the book had more photographs of the materials.