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Material evidence with a light touch

Popular scientist Mark Miodownik shares his passion for the substances that make our world in an entertaining style

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 5:33pm

Stuff Matters
by Mark Miodownik
Viking
Four stars

Madonna called herself the Material Girl and reminded us that we are "living in a material world". But we tend to take materials - with an "s" - for granted. Mark Miodownik, however, is obsessed with it and, as a TV geek on Dara O Briain's Science Club as well as a professor of material science, he's on a mission to re-acquaint us with the wonders of the fabric that sustains our lives.

Stuff Matters can be seen as a book in the line of J.E. Gordon's Structures: Why Things Don't Fall Down and The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor - 1970s classics still in print and cited in Miodownik's further reading list.

Miodownik traces his interest [in materials] back to the shocking impact of a razor blade when he was slashed by a stranger in a London tube station as a teenager

But times have changed. Gordon was a great populariser who enlivened his tales of materials with stories of yachting and classical Greece, his other great passions; he even gave us the basic equations of materials science.

Miodownik has no equations, and his points of reference are often from pop culture and consumerist lifestyles, but there are many nuggets gleaned from history.

I half expected a parade of hi-tech (invisibility cloaks and all) but wisely, he mostly plumps for the longstanding and already humanised materials - steel, glass, paper, porcelain - with plastics, concrete and carbon-fibre composites as the representatives from the 20th century. The new age is represented by aerogels, graphene and bionic body replacements.

Miodownik is enthusiastic about the materials he writes about. Most are useful, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing, but he celebrates aerogels - which struggle to find users other than Nasa - for their sheer physical wondrousness: silica aerogel is a spectrally blue substance that seems to blend into the air (it is blue for the same reason the sky is blue - it scatters light), weighs barely more than air (it is 99.8 per cent made of the stuff), and is the world's best insulator: a flower placed on an aerogel block is untouched by a Bunsen burner roaring away beneath it, while graphene aerogel is the world's lightest solid.

Miodownik tells a good story - and in the case of plastics he even turns in a film script to make the point that they are worthy materials and not, as the 1960s derogatively had it, "plastic, man". At the chapter's close, he lists a few iconic examples: nylons, vinyl records, silicone.

Above all, he celebrates celluloid as the plastic with the biggest cultural impact: film would have been impossible without it and Miodownik weaves a tale, beginning with the American wild west days of late-19th-century invention, of celluloid's explosive nature (it is a close chemical cousin of guncotton - nitrocellulose or flash paper).

Also enthralling are the accounts of craft inventions before the scientific age.

Until the industrial revolution, for example, only the samurai possessed the secret of creating hard, sharp steel. The essential factor, the carbon content, was known to no one, East or West, but the Japanese found an empirical way of selecting the sharpest steel.

Porcelain was a most unlikely invention: totally unlike standard pottery, the material achieves its amazing toughness and bone-like translucency through an unlikely combination of white clay, feldspar and quartz heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius. Until 1704 only the Chinese had the secret. But Miodownik suggests the Chinese disdain for glass contributed to their missing out on the scientific revolution. Glass is the material of microscopes, telescopes and chemical apparatus; science as we know it can't be done without it.

Miodownik writes of his own involvement with materials: he traces his interest back to the shocking impact of a razor blade when he was slashed by a stranger in a London tube station as a teenager. Other close encounters are more benign: he watches the British capital's new Shard building rise near his home and counts the truckloads of concrete going in (700); photographic paper has him musing on his refugee father's German ID card and the uncanny authority of marks on paper; while porcelain leads to reflections on his parents' wedding tea set.

His final chapter explains some of the science behind materials: that it is all a matter of Russian-doll structural hierarchies stretching up from the tiny atoms, through nano, micro and miniature structures until we have the things we can see and handle.

Anyone not already a materials buff will learn a lot, but although Miodownik is good at explaining why we take some materials to our hearts (diamonds for instance) and not others (glass is the architects' favourite but it isn't exactly lovable). Some puzzles remain.

Why, for instance, are some inventors famous while others languish in obscurity? Harry Brearley, for example, invented stainless steel in 1913. It's hard now to imagine a world without stainless steel, yet few have heard of Brearley.

A materials science book wouldn't be complete without a British technology story of success and failure. Carbon-fibre composites, which currently make up about 50 per cent by weight (nearer 80 per cent by volume) of a Boeing Dreamliner or Airbus 350, and dominate sports equipment from tennis to Formula 1, were invented in 1963 by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough (now privatised as QinetiQ).

The missing coda in Miodownik's account is that, although carbon-fibre composites were successfully commercialised, notably by Rolls-Royce and Courtaulds, by the 1990s only one small British firm, RK Carbon Fibre, at Inverness, remained. And that was taken over by the global SGL group in 1997.

But the tide may be turning, and if it does, Miodownik, as director of the Institute of Making and the very model of a modern materials man, will be riding it.

Guardian News & Media

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