Stuff Matters is a very nice little book about the materials that surround us. Organized in ten chapter, each tracing the history of a class of material (metal, paper, glass, plastics, chocolate, gels, graphene, concrete, ceramics, biomaterial), we get to better appreciate how much tinkering and research took place over centuries to discover all these materials and their properties.
Most materials in the book are materials we know and can relate to. We know their basic properties, for instance, that rocks are solid, don’t melt easily, and don’t conduct electricity. Having two young children discovering the world, I marveled at how much they still need to discover. For a large part, we learn from personal experience. But we also learn through school, reading, movies, art, architecture. Materials are everywhere and are an integral part of our society and culture. That’s one theme of the book and it resonated well with me.
Mark Miodownik is a good storyteller. When talking about materials, there’s always a human context that makes the story relatable and engaging. For instance porcelain isn’t just porcelain, it’s also the story of Chinese emperors trying to impress their rivals with refinery and sophistication. At the same time, the book has its good share of technical details. We learn about the structure of many materials, including several modern “high tech” materials such as graphene and aerogel. The book even mentions invisibility cloak, how cool is that?
The whole book is interspersed with personal anecdotes. They don’t feel forced and I enjoyed them. Mark Miodownik commands his subject for sure and is passionate about it. I loved the anecdote about him being profoundly impressed by the Crown Jewels of England as a kid. Not because of the luxury they represent but because of their “primitive” materials, mostly pure gold and gems. We can really feel that his passion for the subject came at an early age. And passion is contagious. This book is a nice example of it.