Book review

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World

by Mark Miodownik, 2014, 264 pages, paperback, Penguin Books, ISBN978 0 241 95518 5  CAN $17.00. Winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winston Prize for Science Books

Book cover of Mark Miodownik’s “Stuff Matters”.Stuff Matters is an extremely interesting and engaging book, cleverly written and thoroughly enjoyable on a personal level. On a professional level for a chemistry teacher, it is an important — perhaps necessary — read as it provides background from a material science aspect often missing from chemical education. Miodownik, himself, is a professor of Materials Science in the UK.

Miodownik has an easy writing style and the science is not too technical. Using numerous analogies, he explains science for the non-science audience. For a science teacher, these analogies can used be to assist students in their learning. Like a good teacher, Miodownik introduces the reader to each chapter with a catchy story that he weaves throughout the chapter. Often these stories are very personal and are aspects of his own life. Indeed, the captivating story in the introduction makes one realize that stuff actually does matter.

Having explained to the reader why he is writing the book, and why one should read it, Miodownik defines the 10 items — the stuff — we all encounter and often simply ignore. He employs a common thread, a photograph of himself containing the same 10 items he intends to write about. Each chapter begins with the same photograph as a constant reminder of what has been covered and what is still to come.

The “stuff” of Miodownik's choice includes steel, paper, glass, graphite, concrete and chocolate among other everyday items. Once he has introduced the item with his personal anecdote, the reader is treated to a historical review of its discovery, an excellent and easily understood explanation of the chemistry and engineering behind its development, and how it has progressed as a material to its present use. The chapters are not limited to the item itself but often branch off into similar or competing materials. In the chapter on graphite for example, there is ample discussion of diamond, nano-carbon, buckey balls, carbon fibre and graphene, a two dimensional hexagonally bonded carbon.

Stuff Matters forces us to realize how important these materials are to our lives and why we should not simply take them for granted. While we now know a great deal of the science behind these materials, this was not always the case. One marvels at the ingenuity and true scientific method employed by the Chinese in discovering porcelain or by the Romans in their glass and concrete. In many cases, making these items was an art form with the recipes carefully guarded and passed down to privileged generations. The blacksmith who hammered red hot iron did not know the science behind his techniques but understood the process and materials in order to get the best result.

Very little of the content of Stuff Matters would be found in our present chemistry syllabus. And that is precisely why the chemistry teacher should read and incorporate it into his or her classroom content. The science of the materials adds to the theory and gives the chemistry a broader scope. Stuff Matters is also ideally suited to the application portion of the course as it marries the science, technology and anthropology of these materials. If that is not enough, the chapter on chocolate, while not quite “to die for”, will appeal to all sides of a chocolate lover's brain. You can learn about the six crystal types of cocoa butter and Miodownik will settle the argument on whether eating chocolate is better than kissing. That knowledge may come in handy.