Thursday, June 4, 2015

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

Title:  Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
Author:  Mark Miodownik
Publication Information:  Mariner Books (reprint edition). 2014. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0544483944 / 978-0544483941

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "As I stood on a train bleeding from what would later be classified as a thirteen-centimeter stab wound, I wondered what to do."

Favorite Quote:  "You don't have to go into a museum to wonder at how history and technology have affected human cultures. their effects are around you now."

Stuff matters. What stuff? The "marvelous materials that shape our man-made world" include steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, and porcelain. This set of seemingly very different things are all brought together cohesively into this one book.

The opening sentence of the book is certainly unexpected. You would not expect a nonfiction science book to begin with a stabbing. A mystery or a thriller maybe, but not a book on the man-made materials of our world. The opening, however, sets the tone for the entire book. The book is surprisingly personal, with stories and histories. The story quality and conversational style also make the book relatively easy to read.

Don't be fooled by the seemingly casual tone of the book though. The book contains a lot of knowledge and hard core science. The author Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist and professor at University College London. He is also a director of the Institute of Making, which houses a Material Library - a growing collection of materials from around the world. This book is the result of his experience. It presents research history, atomic structures, technological advances and other descriptions to accomplish its scientific purpose. It just does it in a way as to be easily accessible to a casual reader and in a way to move beyond the science and look at its implications for our culture, our lives, and our world.

The author begins with a photo of himself on his roof. This photograph is the anchor to bring together writings on very disparate things. All the chapters in the book begin with that photograph, for each of the materials discussed can be found in that photograph. A chapter on each material stands alone and can be read alone. However, the repeated image creates a link that ties the individual pieces together.

From the one photograph, the author writes about each material in turn. You would think that a book talking about the materials of our world turn by turn would title its chapters for the material being discussed. But not this book. The title of each chapter is instead an adjective - indomitable, trusted, fundamental, delicious, marvelous, imaginative, invisible, unbreakable, and refined. The author uses the adjectives to illustrate that "we all have personal relationships with our material world, and these are simply mine." The author interjects reflection, culture, and a little philosophy into science - a necessary combination in our increasingly man-made world.

The final two chapters - Immortal and Synthesis - move beyond the materials. Synthesis as the title suggests brings the book together, presenting final thoughts and conclusions. The chapter Immortal is the anomaly in the book. It does not talk about one particular material but the entire technology behind biomedical engineering. Using the analogy of The Six Million Dollar Man, it discusses the need, technology, issues, and ethics surrounding medical engineering. Thus, a book that starts with a stabbing ends with the ability to "rebuild" man and leaves the reader with a sense of wonder about what amazing materials surround us and a sense of reflection about materials to come.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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