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. . . .