Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Modern World, by Mark Miodownik. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 272 pp. $16.45 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Daniel Wahl
In May 1985, a young Mark Miodownik sat on a train, with a fresh thirteen-centimeter stab wound in his back, and thought about what had just happened. Moments earlier, a man had approached him saying he had a knife and asking for money. Miodownik had decided to keep his assailant talking until the train doors were closing, and then push quickly past him to safety. That didn’t work out so well. Although his assailant did not have a knife, he had a razor blade. And it had sliced through Miodownik’s thick leather coat and multiple layers of clothing, severely lacerating his back.
Miodownik saw the tiny steel weapon later that day at the police station and noticed that “its steel edge was still perfect, unaffected by its afternoon’s work” (p. x). This observation was the beginning of his obsession with that material.
I suddenly became ultra-sensitive to its being present everywhere. I saw it in the tip of the ballpoint pen I was using to fill out the police form; it jangled at me from my dad’s key ring while he waited, fidgeting; later that day it sheltered and took me home, covering the outside of our car in a layer no thicker than a postcard. . . . When we got home I sat down next to my dad at the kitchen table, and we ate my mum’s soup together in silence. Then I paused, realizing I even had a piece of steel in my mouth. I consciously sucked the stainless steel spoon I had been eating my soup with, then took it out and studied its bright shiny appearance, so shiny that I could even see a distorted reflection of myself in it. “What is this stuff?” I said, waving the spoon at my dad. “And why doesn’t it taste of anything?” I put it back in my mouth to check, and sucked it assiduously.
How is it that one material does so much for us, and yet we hardly talk about it? It is an intimate character in our lives—we put it in our mouths, use it to get rid of unwanted hair, drive around in it—it is our most faithful friend, and yet we hardly know what makes it tick. Why does a razor blade cut while a paper clip bends? Why are metals shiny? Why, for that matter, is glass transparent? Why does everyone seem to hate concrete but love diamond? And why is that chocolate tastes so good? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? (pp. x–xi)
Miodownik has been obsessed with steel, and various other materials, ever since. He studied materials science at Oxford, earned a PhD in jet engine alloys, worked as a materials scientist in research labs, and created a library of materials at the Institute of Making.
In Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Modern World, Miodownik delves into ten materials, each of which can be seen in a photo he shares of himself drinking tea on the top of his apartment building (and which he refers back to often). The materials are: stainless steel, glass, chocolate, paper, foam, graphite, porcelain, plastic, titanium, and concrete.
Miodownik is quick to point out the importance of these materials to his own life on the most basic level. For example, he says that if you took them away in that photo, he would be left shivering naked in midair—and soon in a place very far from the height of civilization.
More importantly, however, in discussing each material Miodownik shows how it benefits our lives in countless and often overlooked ways beyond our survival. Consider how he introduces paper:
Paper is so much part of our everyday lives that we may easily forget that for much of history it was rare and expensive. We wake up in the morning with paper decorating our walls, either in the form of posters and prints or as wallpaper itself. We head to the bathroom for our morning ablution and there make use of toilet paper, an item which, if absent, quickly foments a personal crisis. We head to the kitchen, where paper in the form of cardboard provides not just the containers for our breakfast cereals but the soundboard for them too, as they rattle their happy song. Our fruit juice, similarly, is contained by waxed cardboard, as is the milk. Tea leaves are encapsulated in a paper tea bag, so they can be immersed in and easily retrieved from hot water, and coffee is filtered through paper. After breakfast we may head off to face the world, but we rarely do so without taking paper with us in the form of money, notes, books, and magazines. Even if we don’t leave the house with paper, we quickly accrue it: we are issued paper in the form of transport tickets, we pick up a newspaper, or we buy a snack and are handed a paper receipt as a record of the purchase. Most people’s work involves plenty of paperwork: despite talk of a paperless office, this has never transpired, nor does it look likely to, such is our trust in this material as a store of information.
Lunch involves paper napkins, without which personal standards of hygiene would slip dramatically. Shops are full of paper labels, without which we wouldn’t know what we were buying or how much it cost. Our purchases are often contained within paper bags for their journey home. Once home we occasionally cover them in some wrapping paper as a birthday present accompanied by a paper birthday card contained in a paper envelope. Taking photos of the party, we may even print them out on photographic paper and in doing so create our material memories. Before bed we read books, blow our noses, and take one last trip to the bathroom, to convene intimately with the toilet paper again before we surrender to dreams (or perhaps nightmares of a world without paper). (pp. 21–22)
People could perhaps survive without paper. But that’s not the point for Miodownik. The point is that paper, like concrete, stainless steel, and many other marvelous materials, enables us not merely to survive but to flourish in profoundly meaningful ways. Such man-made materials make our lives safer, healthier, more enjoyable.
That last value is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the case of chocolate. As Miodownik observes:
[C]hocolate is one of our greatest engineering creations. It is certainly no less remarkable and technically sophisticated than concrete or steel. Through sheer ingenuity, we have found a way to turn an unpromising tropical rainforest nut that tastes revolting into a cold, dark, brittle solid designed for one purpose only: to melt in your mouth, flood your senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of the brain. Despite our scientific understanding, words or formulae are not enough to describe it. It is as close as we get, I would say, to a material poem, as complex and beautiful as a sonnet. Which is why the Linnaean name for the stuff, theobroma, is so appropriate. It means “the food of the gods.” (p. 90)
Miodownik does not focus here or elsewhere merely on the truism that man has created the materials in question. He repeatedly emphasizes that the materials man creates reflect his values and that his ability to create them is a consequence of human ingenuity.
The story of how people created the materials in question is a big part of Stuff Matters. In a way, this is the most emphatic point of the book. As Miodownik shows throughout it, and as he details in the book’s final chapter, it is only by understanding the structure of different elements and compounds at ever deeper levels that humans have been able to create ever more amazing and useful materials.
For example, the same element, carbon, makes up both soft black graphite and hard transparent diamonds. The only difference is how that element is structured. And having understood the qualities in which different structures result, and then having discovered ways to manipulate those structures to serve our ends, we now have materials such as graphene, the atomically thin building block of graphite. Miodownik is nearly ecstatic about this new material, and for good reason.
Just for starters, graphene is the thinnest, strongest, and stiffest material in the world; it conducts heat faster than any other known material; it can carry more electricity, faster and with less resistance, than any other material; [and] it allows Klein tunneling, an exotic quantum effect in which electrons within the material can tunnel through barriers as if they were not there. (p. 177)
Graphene has the potential to revolutionize computing and to enable the construction of cars, planes, and rockets that are significantly lighter and stronger than anything we now have. It may even enable the construction of space elevators, “allowing people and cargo to be transported into space with ease and an almost negligible energy cost” (p. 173).
From stainless steel to chocolate to concrete to graphene—the stuff people make—and the stuff people make with it—is an expression of human passion and ability, concrete proof of man’s heroic nature, the frozen form of man’s rational thought.
Miodownik’s Stuff is a tribute to man’s mind. Read it. You’ll find yourself enjoying the world with an even greater awareness of the power of integration.