STUFF Matters [Book Review]

Almost two years ago, I was in a conference room with my fellow graduate students and my adviser. I was presenting the first draft of my PhD defense presentation. It was detailed, it was clean, it was (in my eyes) an ideal way to educate my audience what I did, why I did it, and what could be done with it. I thought I was set.

However, the first thing that my adviser stated was that this presentation was so cut dry, that I would obviously bore my audience. A dull performance would hinder my appearance and possibly reduce my chances of convincing my professional committee of my achievement (which  = no PhD).

What he wanted was …… a story. Research isn’t as simple as do this and you get that. An education is what you’ve learned along the way, and there are many trials that we had to overcome. Additionally, what’s important is how your experiences can be relate-able to those around you. Without that, you have no connection, no attention, and no satisfaction. So…..I basically had to start from scratch. Even though it was a bit more work, I was glad that I did. And I felt that difference!

It’s weird the little things you learn along your journey in life.

So when you pick up a book that is about STUFF (various materials), you might wonder how boring could this novel be? What can someone really write about a bunch of random topics, and why would anyone care? It would seem like a book which you could keep on your shelf and maybe reference if you want to learn a bit about a chapter’s contents. Like a text book…..dull and dry.

But it isn’t. Nine chapters, nine materials. But each one contained story. Sometimes it’s the history of the technology behind the substance. Other chapters have a personal relationship to the author. Multiple chapters have both. When the author, Mark Miodownik, discusses the his personal encounter with aerogel and his fascination until his curiosity is finally (and legally) fulfilled. Or how his own porcelain teacup, inherited from his own loving parents, is slowly losing functionality due to its own structural integrity.

Of course, a novel can’t copy/paste the same layout for each material. So the author attempts switch it up to make it not as repetitive. Some chapters he succeeds, as I personally enjoyed the chapter on plastic with his cinematic “dialogues.” Other chapters are not as impressive. For example, I found the section on paper to be quite random, as if it was a bunch of related topics roughly stitched together with a few minor transitions.

Here’s the list of materials that are talked about in the book:

  • Steel (Indomitable)
  • Paper (Trusted)
  • Concrete (Fundamental)
  • Chocolate (Delicious)
  • Foam, but mostly aerogel (Marvelous)
  • Plastic (Imaginative)
  • Glass (Invisible)
  • Carbon/Graphite (Unbreakable)
  • Ceramic/Porcelean (Refined)
  • Implants (Immortal) – Not really a material, but more as an advancement and utilization of some of the previous materials

The last chapter is Synthesis, a substitution for this book’s conclusion. It’s a way that the author attempts to tie all the previous themes in the book together. On how there’s a working background behind everything that makes up our living culture, from the nano realm to our observable large-scale familiarity. Unfortunately ……I didn’t find a story in this chapter worth relating to, so I ended up skimming through this chapter.

Sorry Mark, but I admit that it was the only chapter that I did this.

Fun fact….there is a material harder than diamond. Lonsdaleite. Of course, being extremely to fabricate Graphene layers into this 3D structure makes macro-scale samples almost impossible to create.

There is ONE major annoyance that I have against this book, and that has to do with his choice of graphics. I do enjoy books with illustrations, because a picture is worth 1,000 words. And a picture can tremendously help “disclose” raw and dull non-fiction content.

But…’s the 21st century. And he has pencil drawings in this “New York Times Bestseller.” For example, here’s his illustration on a diamond:stuff_matters_illustration

It doesn’t take that long to open up some digital software, be it as simple as MS paint, and draw some straight lines and perfectly spherical “atoms.” I used a lot of Microsoft PowerPoint and have made some quite detailed images myself. And they took me 5-10 minutes each. For example, wouldn’t you prefer to look at images like the one shown below?Dispersion_Rectangular.jpg

But coming back to the literature content, I was contempt with reading this book.

And I’m not really good at writing conclusions, either. Rodger.