Book Review: Mark Miodownik, Stuff Matters
Smoke bubbles? Not quite. Welcome to the weird world of aerogel, the world’s lightest substance (it is 98% air). Picture is of Peter Tsou with a sample of aerogel at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
As a kid growing up in the 70’s, I remember being mesmerised by a short film I caught once between cartoons that showed the world from different perspectives. The film starts innocently enough with a scene of a couple having a picnic by a lake. But then the camera suddenly starts zooming out, so first we see the city, then the sky, and then the earth itself. Before we know what’s happening we were spiralling out of our own galaxy and into the realms of others. As if that ride wasn’t dizzying enough, the film then goes into reverse, catapulting us once again through the galaxies and back to the couple at the picnic scene. From here the camera gets under the skin of the man’s hand and ploughs on into his cells, before then going on into the equally sparse and eerie world of quantum physics, whizzing us past quarks, neutrons and electrons until, like the limits of space we had just come from, we reach the fuzzy edge of our understanding. Full circle. It’s a breathtaking roller-coaster ride, and one I’m happy to have found and watched again thanks to the glory of YouTube (it’s called Powers of Ten by the way and is, I’m surprised to find, produced by IBM).
The reason I mention this is that reading Mark Miodownik’s book, Stuff Matters, is a bit like taking that same joyous and wondrous ride all over again, but this time as an adult.
Miodownik’s mission is to show us the extraordinary inner-life of the otherwise inert and everyday stuff that surrounds us. In the author’s capable hands even the story of concrete turns into a fantastic sightseeing trip that takes us past London’s Shard, JFK airport, the stinking volcanic sands outside of Naples, the Pantheon in Rome, a 19th century Parisian amateur gardener named Joseph Monier (the man who accidentally invented reinforced concrete – he was looking for better flowerpots!), the concept of self-healing and self-cleaning buildings (no, really), and the beautifully intricate nanoverse of calcium silicate fibrils. Exploring miniature worlds hasn’t been this much fun since the days of the Fantastic Voyage and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
Each chapter deals with a different substance – chocolate, steel, paper, plastic, aerogel, etc – and is introduced by relating it to a personal incident involving the author. These incidents range from the comical – such as being confronted by a drunk in a Dublin pub who is convinced he has found a new way to sharpen blunt razors – to the more perturbing – such a being stabbed on the London tube or jettisoned through his car windscreen in Spain. This is not just great storytelling – each anecdote serves the purpose of humanising each material, of bringing it into focus at a perspective we can understand, before we dive down under the surface to see what makes things tick at the atomic level. The science which follows is deftly and meticulously explained, without ever being boring, patronising or overly-complex. To add further spice, the texts are peppared with some of the best asides, historical anecdotes and pop culture references I can remember seeing in a single book (my personal highlight is an ongoing reference to the Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series I had almost forgotten about but for which we clearly share the same fascination).
There are too many great stories to recount them all here (read the book!), but one that sticks out for me is about one of the weirdest of all substances, aerogel.
The story of aerogel starts with a guy called Samuel Kistler, a farmer turned chemist who had the weird idea of trying to see what jelly (or jell-o if you’re American) would be like if, after making it, you replaced all the water with a gas instead (he went on to trial other substances, including of all things egg whites). Unluckily for Kistler, his invention never really took off during his lifetime. However fast-forward to today and both NASA and CERN are using the unique properties of silica aerogel to track and trap tiny particles, including those in the tail of a comet. It’s great to think that the weird but brilliant ideas of a farmer have ended up facilitating some of the most advanced experiments the world has ever seen, both in tunnels under Switzerland and in outer space.
It’s hard to remember a book which I have enjoyed reading this much while at the same time it was filling my brain with lots of quirky and fascinating ideas I didn’t know about already. Feynman’s QED comes close, but Miodownik’s book is a hell of a lot more fun.
Despite all the jokes, or perhaps even because of them, Miodownik is out to make some serious points too. Some of these happen to be fundamental truths, but, like the materials he is discussing themselves, they are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted in the bustle of our everyday lives. “We may think of ourselves as civilised”, he remarks at the beginning of the book, “but that civilisation is in a large part bestowed by material wealth. Without this stuff, we would quickly be confronted by the same basic struggle for survival that animals are faced with.” Here here. Larkin put it even more plainly in his “brick” poem:
To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a forth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.
But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.
In the end I’m left with the feeling that Miodownik is the kind of guy you wish you could meet down the pub, but never do. Wry, funny, articulate and a great story-teller, you can imagine him keeping you amused into the early hours. It would be a bit like being inside the Power of Ten film, except that, at the centre of this universe, we’d be having a pint of Guinness rather than a technicolor picnic by the lake.
Stuff Matters is available now from Penguin.