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Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

I am a materials engineer, on my way to get a Ph.D. in materials science and I absolutely love what I do! Everything can be viewed through the lenses of materials science.

Did you know that chocolate has 6 different polymorphs (just like carbon atoms can be arranged in different ways to form diamond or graphite, the fat molecules in chocolate can be arranged in 6 different ways)? Did you know that we can make concrete that can be healed by bacteria? Did you know that we have safe to handle, room temperature liquid metals? Did you know that iron is a pretty soft material and that by adding just a little bit of carbon in the structure it becomes steel – one of the most widely used materials today? Did you know that we sent aerogels (the lightest materials ever created!) in space in order to capture dust from comets?

In case you didn’t get it – I really, really like material science. It’s a perfect combination of chemistry, physics, and engineering with real-life applications. However, I also recognize it is a topic that may be hard to present in an attractive way. And for the longest time I was asking myself – is there a book I could point my friends to and just tell them “see! I told you materials science is the best!”? Is there a book out there that could influence people to choose to go into materials science (the same way many fantastic books inspired people to go into biology, physics, or chemistry)?

“In a very real way, then, materials are a reflection of who we are, a multi-scale expression of our human need and desires.” – Mark Miodownik, Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

First – it is a disappointment (fair – probably not to that many people but I’m definitely amongst them!) there are not that many books about materials science. We have a few books from the previous century. Most notably: “The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor by J.E. Gordon like” or “Stuff: The Materials The World Is Made Of” by Ivan Amato. (An honorable mention goes to Oliver Sacks' “Uncle Tungsten” however I do recognize it’s more chemistry then materials science!).

In the last 5 year two news books have been published on the subject – “Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World” and “Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives”. Both are by Mark Miodownik, a British professor at the University College London who set out on a mission to share his love of materials with a wider audience. Although both deal with materials (liquids are also often treated as materials!), Today I want to recommend to you “Stuff Matters”. I like books in which the enthusiasm of the author for the subject can be felt through his work, and this book is a prime example of that!

The book will take you through engaging 10 chapters. The main focus of each chapter are the materials we know from our everyday life – Steel, Paper, Concrete, Chocolate, Foam, Plastic, Glass, Graphite, Porcelain, and Implants Materials. Every chapter is filled with some history behind the discoveries, fun facts, and a solid dose of science. But don’t worry – although the book starts pretty strong with attempting to explain crystal structure and the role of dislocations, I believe Mark Miodownik was able to make this book accessible for people without a solid science background. A 4.1/5 score on Goodreads is a really good indication of that!

The book gets bonus points from me for being also suitable for people who do have a background in science, like myself. Although I didn’t learn new things about the mechanisms that govern the world of materials, I did learn about a few materials I’ve never heard about and gained new insight into the story behind some of them.

Should you read it? Yes! The book is brilliant, well-written, and entertaining. It’s a perfect fit for anyone who is curious about the world!

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