Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik’s Enthralling Explanation of Our Physical World

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If Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup is a whimsical explanation of how things work, Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is more like a love letter to the materials which compose our world. Stuff Matters is not just delightful and easy to follow along, it’s simply enthralling. Scientific American’s description of Miodownik’s “infectious enthusiasm” for explaining the history and science of everyday materials is apt.

Czerski and Miodownik share a fascination and excitement for the commonplace: while Czerski delights in the physics which makes her toaster heat her toast, Miodownik holds an unrivaled appreciation for cement. Both of these scientists are eager to share these kinds of unexplored wonders of the world with inquisitive minds, and both should be approached with a childlike sense of curiosity.

Reading Stuff Matters is an excuse to ask your friends, “did you know…?” followed by an absurdly obscure fact about something they encounter in their physical world every day. This is the “infectious enthusiasm” which Scientific American described in their own review. In the video included below, Miodownik presents the charming behaviors and startling characteristics of various strange materials with an energy he conveys equally through his writing.

If you’re an avid reader, you’ve likely come across a vast array of books with unique qualities, but Stuff Matters brings a whole different set of unique characteristics to the table. Miodownik’s book is structured around a single photograph he first presents in the introduction. It’s a deceptively simple black and white photograph of the author himself seated at a table atop his roof, his eyes downcast at a book, the city buildings rising behind him. Each cleverly-titled chapter proceeds to break down a material seen in this photograph.

Steel. Concrete. Paper. Diamonds. Chocolate. In his book, Miodownik chooses some of the most “marvelous materials that shape our man-made world” and strips them down, revealing their secrets, forcing you to stop and consider the things you encounter every day. Most of us have not thought much about these materials before, and Miodownik’s approach is indeed one of thoughtfulness. He also writes with a tone of reflection, often utilizing startling and amusing anecdotes from his own life to build a personal connection with a materials he will discuss. In one unforgettable example about an accident in which he collided with a tractor while out for a drive, he describes the sensation of being catapulted through the windshield of a car “like hitting a wall of transparent ginger snaps”.

Miodownik’s ability to describe materials in vivid ways that make us think twice about them, or in some cases even think about them in the first place, is a magical ability in an author writing about science. By seamlessly weaving interesting history and fascinating science together and presenting it to readers with tongue-in-cheek humor and personal anecdotes, Stuff Matters is clearly deserving of its awards.

It’s also clearly deserving of your time spent reading it. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore.

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