Mark Miodownik, a Professor of Materials & Society at University College London, is an obsessed man. Nothing strange about this, people have all kinds of obsessions, small, silly, or more serious ones. Mark Miodownik’s personal and professional obsession is materials, he wants to know everything about the stuff that surround us, what they are made of, how they have been developed, and how they have changed the way we live, the way we behave, what we are.
“Materials have multiple meanings.” says Miodownik. “We all have personal relationships with our material world. We are all sensitive to the meanings of materials, whether consciously or subconsciously. And since everything is made from something, these meanings pervade our minds.”
Miodownik’s fascination with materials started at a young very age, after being attacked on a tube station in London. He became fixated with the attack weapon, a steel razor blade.
“This tiny piece of steel, not much bigger than a postage stamp, had cut through five layers of my clothes, and then through the epidermis and dermis of my skin in one slash without any problem at all. When I saw that weapon in the police station later I was mesmerised.”
It was in this police station, that his fixation took form just by observing the staple on the top of the pages of the form he had to fill after the incident. A mundane piece of steel had neatly punched its way through the paper. Miodownik thought it was “exquisite”, almost magical. How could a material produce such diverse stuff, the one unbendingly sharp, the other bend and curved? It was the “birth of his obsession with materials.”
Through a photograph (showing Mark sitting on his London rooftop), he takes us in to the development and history of some of our most familiar objects, such as steel, paper, glass, and plastic, as well as new super-materials, that will revolutionise our world in the decades ahead.
I particularly liked Miodownik’s chapter on silica aerogel, an intriguing nanostructured material that is 99.8% air. Due to its usual properties, such as high porosity, low density, and excellent heat insulation, silica aerogels have drawn a lot of interest both in science and technology. It is an extraordinary material that has high potential applications in wide variety technological areas.
Self-healing concrete is another exciting material that marries two fields: civil engineering and marine biology. By embedding calcite-precipitating bacteria that are able to replicate and excrete minerals in the concrete mixture, it is possible to create concrete capable to seal up the cracks in big structures, bridges, buildings, tunnels and roads.
Materials have undergone a revolution in the past century, but in many respects the revolution is only just beginning. Our century, says Miodownik is likely to bring even bigger material innovations. The potential in designing new materials and modify the existing ones is limitless and exciting. The convergence of biology, physics and chemistry is breaking down barriers and it is going to transform the world that we live in.
Stuff Matters is a fascinated, informative book and Mark Miodownik, a witty, talented writer, a pleasure to read. If you are a chocolate lover, this is a book for you, too.
Below a timelapse video showing how the book’s beautiful cover art was created