Excerpt from Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Stuff Matters

Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik X
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
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  • First Published:
    May 2014, 272 pages
    Mar 2015, 272 pages


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Poornima Apte
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Then a million questions poured out. How is it that this 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 it that chocolate tastes so good? Why does any material look and behave the way it does?

Since the stabbing incident, I have spent the vast majority of my time obsessing about materials. I've studied materials science at Oxford University, I've earned a PhD in jet engine alloys, and I've worked as a materials scientist and engineer in some of the most advanced laboratories around the world. Along the way, my fascination with materials has continued to grow—and with it my collection of extraordinary samples of them. These samples have now been incorporated into a vast library of materials built together with my friends and colleagues Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen. Some are impossibly exotic, such as a piece of NASA aerogel, which being 99.8 percent air resembles solid smoke; some are radioactive, such as the uranium glass I found at the back of an antique shop in Australia; some are small but stupidly heavy, such as ingots of the metal tungsten extracted painstakingly from the mineral wolframite; some are utterly familiar but have a hidden secret, such as a sample of self-healing concrete. Taken together, this library of more than a thousand materials represents the ingredients that built our world, from our homes, to our clothes, to our machines, to our art. The library is now located and maintained at the Institute of Making which is part of University College London. You could rebuild our civilization from the contents of this library, and destroy it too.

Yet there is a much bigger library of materials containing millions of materials, the biggest ever known, and it is growing at an exponential rate: the manmade world itself. Consider the photograph opposite. It pictures me drinking tea on the roof of my flat. It is unremarkable in most ways, except that when you look carefully it provides a catalog of the stuff from which our whole civilization is made. This stuff is important. Take away the concrete, the glass, the textiles, the metal, and the other materials from the scene, and I am left naked shivering in midair. We may like to think of ourselves as civilized, but that civilization is in a large part bestowed by material wealth. Without this stuff, we would quickly be confronted by the same basic struggle for survival that animals are faced with. To some extent, then, what allows us to behave as humans are our clothes, our homes, our cities, our stuff, which we animate through our customs and language.

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Excerpted from Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Miodownik. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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