Skip to main content

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik ****

In my head there is a spectrum of interestingness for science that
runs from geology to the really weird bits of physics. I have never yet found a popular science writer, however good, who can make geology truly interesting, while something like quantum physics is so fascinating (and strange) that it takes little effort to make it fascinating (though it’s hard to make it comprehensible). Materials science – what I call ‘how stuff works’ when talking to junior school children generally sits near to geology on that spectrum. But Mark Miodownik has managed the near-impossible and made it a deeply enjoyable read.
I thought things were going to be a bit dire when he starts with the story of how he was attacked as a teen with a razor blade on the London Underground and developed a fascination with the nature of metal, an opinion that wasn’t helped by the rather self-indulgent approach of basing the book around a photograph of the author sitting on his roof terrace. But very soon the superb storytelling took over and we were into the fascinating world of Bessemer and the making of steel. In fact so well are the stories told throughout the book that the author’s photograph of himself becomes an old friend and interesting as a focus. It really works.
The book has ten sections, covering metals, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam (particularly aerogel), plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain and rather bizarrely ‘implant’ covering both bones and artificial items in the body like screws. These are all delightful excursions into the subjects with plenty of diversions along the way.
Two of the sections, paper and plastic, are weaker than the other because Miodownik decided to try a different format for the chapter. Paper has very little content (which is perhaps why he used this approach), consisting primarily of two page spreads describing different types of paper which gets a little repetitive. Plastic is done in the form of a film script (to reflect the importance of plastic film to moving pictures), but this seemed rather strained. Miodownik is also loose with the facts in stating that ‘the biggest diamond yet discovered… is an entire planet five times the Earth.’ That’s not science. All we know is that a star’s variation suggests a companion that has the right sort of density to possibly be mostly diamond. However these blips don’t damage the book’s integrity.
Overall a delightful book on a subject that is relatively rarely written about – you could say the cinderella of the sciences. You will discover facts you didn’t know, how basic but important elements of our lives like cement or chocolate work at the structural level – and along the way will enjoy some excellent storytelling. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…