The Strange and Wonderful World of Mark Miodownik

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.


Book Review: The Tyranny of Experts

The Tyranny of Experts

When you’ve got two such thought provoking and controversial authors as Matt Ridley and Bill Easterly in a single blog, the results can never be boring. Here’s Matt Ridley reviewing Easterly’s latest book, “The Tyranny of Experts”:

Imagine that in 2010 more than 20,000 farmers in rural Ohio had been forced from their land by soldiers, their cows slaughtered, their harvest torched and one of their sons killed — all to make way for a British forestry project, financed and promoted by the World Bank. 

Read the rest of Matt Ridley’s Review at The Rational Optimist website.


Five things your company can learn from the legacy of Steve Jobs

steve jobs

As there must be close to a zillion proper reviews out there already of Walter Issacson’s mammoth biography of Steve Jobs, so I’m not going to even bother doing that here. Instead what I’m going to do is pull out a few key thoughts about what your average company might learn from the world’s number one brand.

1. Apple’s Three Key Principles


When the angel investor Mike Markkula presented the first real cheque to the fledging Apple Computing company to get things kick started, it made Steve Jobs a happy man. But the cheque was only part of the Markkula deal. What Jobs found even more useful were his three principles of what makes a good company tick – something Steve took onboard and put at the core of the Apple business philosophy.

In short these are:

  • Focus – in order to do a good job on the things a company decides to do, it must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities
  • Impute – a company needs to “impute” its philosophy by conveying its values in everything it does, from the products to the packaging to the marketing. In other words: things presented in a slipshod manner will be perceived as slipshod; it is no good having great, high-quality products with brilliant design if they are not presented to the customer in a professional and creative way
  •  Empathy – truly understand the needs of the customer

Steve took these principles and gave them his own specific spin.

He was able to combine an eye for exacting detail and for seeing the big picture at the same time. So from the big picture perspective, when Jobs returned to Apple to save it from the brink of disaster, he was immediately able to strip back production from hundreds of confusing and competing offers to just four. That’s right. Four! Now that’s how to focus…

From the other perspective, Jobs’ eye for obsessing over details was legendary, a trait he inherited from his mechanic / carpenter dad, who taught him that when building something you need to care about every aspect and detail, even when assembling the bits you can’t see at the back of a cupboard. Steve took this to the extreme, fussing over the arrangement of the microchips on the motherboard buried deep inside his computers – a detail none of his customers would ever see. This enabled him to control every aspect of his products – and hence to impute the trademark quality of the Apple brand into everything they did, including how the packing box looked on the shelf and felt when it was first opened. As T.S. Eliot noted, “there falls a shadow between conception and creation” – but not for Jobs. He realised that the execution of the idea was just as important as the inception.

Finally his genius enabled him to intuitively put these two aspects together in a way that appealed to people: he knew what people wanted even before they did themselves (Jobs came from the Henry Ford, “if I’d had listened to my customers I would have built a faster horse” school). It’s only a pity that his amazing empathy for his customers’ needs didn’t extend to his hapless employees…

So focus, impute and empathy. Now ask yourself for each of these three principles how well your company stacks up. If the answer is “not every well”, you might consider doing something about it.

2. Taking Marketing Seriously

You may think from the Henry Ford example above that Jobs didn’t take marketing seriously. You’d be dead wrong. In fact he took marketing so seriously that he dedicated EVERY Wednesday afternoon to a freewheeling, three hour meeting with his top agency, marketing and communications people to kick around messaging strategy. Now ask yourself: does my company do that? The answer is probably no. But fair’s fair, just about every company on the planet falls short in this regard. As Lee Clow said (the genius behind Apple’s “1984” ad and the “Think Different” campaign), “there’s not a CEO on the planet who deals with marketing the way Steve does”. But look what a difference it made!

3. Creativity

technology and liberal arts
Jobs was convinced that what made Apple super successful as a company were its people, and the fact Apple employees had what we might call a “hinterland”, i.e. people with other interests outside of their day job. All Apple employees were not just brilliant technologists, programmers or designers; they were failed writers, artists, musicians, film makers and photographers too. In other words not only were they good at what they did, they brought a whole host of liberal arts interests to the table as well. According to Jobs, this is what made Apple different to Microsoft, who employed brilliant technicians, but with little interest in anything else.

4. The power of simplicity

Jobs was a master presenter of his ideas. He was able to “impute” his philosophy in a personal way that really resonated with people. His “and one more thing…” – as he unveiled the next big thing to turn our lives upside down – became a common catchphrase in the tech world. But the key to this was his insistence on simplicity. Taken initially from his respect for the user-friendliness of the Atari “insert-quarter-destroy-aliens” games, Jobs respect for simplicity boiled down to his belief that simplicity was in fact the ultimate form of sophistication. But getting there isn’t simple – in fact for Jobs it takes creativity, hard work, determination and lots of hands-on personal engagement in the products. It worked. One critic remembers being amazed when, during a visit to South America, an illiterate six year old took his iPad from him and started flipping around it intuitively after just a couple of minutes use – something unthinkable with regard to most other IT devices.

5. Finally, how NOT to do it

Steve Jobs behaviour towards his friends, family and work colleagues was at times unfathomable. His tyrannical outbursts, off-the-scale temper tantrums, and weeping fits were described inside Apple as his “non-linear” moments. He had weird, compulsive diets (eating little but apples or carrots for weeks on end); developed and nurtured intimidation tactics including staring out opponents and using long silences; and he had a calculated and deliberately provocative stance about psychedelic drugs. So compared to his contemporary Bill Gates (who could these days be easily described as a leader with real “moral” authority), he does not stack up well. Unlike Gates, Jobs was never interested in philanthropy (although being super rich wasn’t cool either – Jobs said he was never interested in being “the richest man in the graveyard”). The core of Jobs problem personality is that he considered himself to be a kind of superhuman to whom the normal rules of behaviour simply did not apply (he ignored speed restrictions and refused to have a licence plate on his car to underline this point). All of this is of course problematic when considering Steve Jobs the man.

The legacy

In the end, what is most inspiring is the legacy, both in its breadth and its depth:

  • At Pixar, Jobs opened the door (with John Lasseter) to the world of digital animation with Toy Story
  • Apple Stores, which reinvented how a store can define a brand
  • The iPod, which redefined how we listen to music
  • The iTunes Store, which paved the way for paying for digital music in the wake of Napster and helped to save the music industry
  • The iPhone, which redefined the paradigm of a mobile phone and what it can do
  • The App Store, which spawned a whole new creative industry
  • The iPad, which launched tablet computing, and which offered a new way of consuming digital publishing for newspapers and magazines
  • The iCloud, which seamlessly synchs all of your devices
  • And Apple itself, arguably one of the most creative companies on the planet

Bill Gates is undoubtedly a better and more humane person, and a genius in his own right too; but Jobs, despite all his flaws, took creativity to a whole other level. His tragedy is that, as his old friends and colleagues testify in the book, he would doubtless have achieved the same results without recourse to his all too often terrible, humiliating and childish behaviour. Despite all that, whatever you think of Jobs the man, he certainly fulfilled his dream to leave a “dent” in the universe.

Less sizzle, more steak: how to get a president elected

Audacity to Win - David Plouffe
I remember when I was first passed a copy of The Audacity to Win by a good friend. He was in a state of nervous excitement when he handed it over. “You have to read this,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

I turned the hardback over in my hands. It was heavy and had a truly boring picture on the front of two suited guys hanging out in a locker room. It took me a second or two to realise one of them was Obama. The author’s name was weird too: David Plouffe. What kind of name is that? It didn’t look particularly promising. Sensing my apprehension, my friend ploughed on. “He’s the guy who took Obama from obscurity to presidency in less than two years. It’s a must read, believe me.”

My friend wasn’t wrong. I started it somewhat reluctantly at the weekend, but found myself turning the last page only three days later – an altogether astounding feat for someone like me; I never read much of anything these days unless it’s attached to an e-mail. And I don’t read much of them, either.

Plouffe (pronounced Pluff, by the way) is an extraordinary character. Part nerd, part hard guy and all-round workaholic, he is a strategy supremo and the mastermind behind the single most amazing election campaign ever run.

As a campaign team, they began life with no money, no equipment, and no access to any kind of talent whatsoever. Plouffe compared them at this time to a small start up company with only to an idea and a couple of laptops to hand. Given that they were also intending to run against the force of nature that was Hillary “I’m in this to win” Clinton, their chances of success were as close to zero as you can possibly get.

What they did have, however, was a candidate they absolutely believed in: Senator Obama.

That said, beliefs like this are nothing special in the campaign business; every other campaign team feels the same about their candidate (except they have the access to money, connections and the talent to back it up too).

So where to start?

Plouffe started by throwing out the campaign rule book. Instead of running his campaign the way they were always run – that is, by going round raising money from the big sponsors – he started doing research on the people who actually vote for the candidates at the grass roots level, building up the data and then building his campaign strategy up from that. He thought (rightly, as it turned out) that he could try a different tack when it came to raising funds. His evidence showed that, at the grass roots level, people were really keen on the central Obama message of change. They were fed up with the old style of politics and bought Obama’s message that it simply wasn’t fit for purpose any more. Not only that, the evidence showed that they might also be willing to contribute funds to make that change happen.

What follows is a master class in evidence-based strategic thinking.

First, they chose to stick to a really simple message – in this case ‘change’ – and then develop a single strategy around it. The team decided from the outset that they would rather have one strategy and stick to it, even if it failed, than six or seven competing strategies.

Second, if the evidence shows you should be doing one thing, but your instinct tells you to do something else, go with the evidence. The team were showered with abuse from the Clinton camp. They said the Obama campaign strategy was wrong; that they should be looking for the big money, and that they simply couldn’t win. Everything they knew and had learned about running campaigns screamed at them to change tack. But the evidence said otherwise, and so they stayed on course. What worked was one message; one strategy; sticking to one path (not many).

Third, they turned on the technology. The Clinton camp didn’t bother much about any of that – after all, it’s not where their big sponsors were (fair enough); for them, technology was all sizzle and no steak. But Plouffe’s data showed that the grass roots people he was targeting used technology and social media all the time, so his strategy targeted them that way too. Again, it was all about the market evidence underpinning the strategy at every juncture. In fact everything they did was measured against the strategy; if it didn’t fit, it got dumped. Simple.

Fourth, to check the strategy was working, they set clear internal guidelines along the way. This way they could judge performance on objective markers, rather than vague subjective ones. Plouffe argues that this also improved morale in the team because judgements on performance are open and transparent. You want to raise money? Put it in the performance agreement, and assign it a name from the team.

Fifth, he built great teams that were focused, but had fun too. The team motto was ‘Respect, Empower, Include.’ But my favourite ‘Pluffy Rule’ concerning teams was his ‘no assholes’ edict. Even if people had the talent, they weren’t hired if they didn’t fit in with the team; the team came first, not talented individuals. Plouffe’s right on the money when he says that people just perform better when they’re not being shouted at (are you listening Steve Jobs?). Conversely, it’s been widely reported that Clinton’s team was rife with infighting and mud slinging.

In the end, it all came down to the vision, the evidence and the strategy that pinned the two together. As Plouffe said to his team, “We need to be sure we’re doing the right thing, otherwise we’ll spend the remainder of the time twisting in the wind and hating every minute of it, and we’ll lose.”

How did he know they were doing the right thing? Evidence, constant market research and analysis of the results they were getting along the way.

In the end, the evidence-based strategy won, and the old, ‘we’ve-always-done-it-this-way-so-why-change’ strategy lost. Their radical approach to raise campaign funds at the grass roots level, using technology and on the ground ambassadors, paid huge dividends in the long run. Along the way they had to suffer the constant ridicule of rival teams. It says something about their success that, when the dust settled, the Clinton camp came asking Plouffe’s team to help pay off their campaign debts. Seems their old style strategy had simply sizzled out.

So if you want an entertaining lesson in how to build a winning strategy based on evidence, buy the book; it’s well worth it. It’s got a horrible picture on the front, mind.

Audacity to Win, by David Plouffe is available pretty much everywhere, including Amazon.

Turing’s Cathedral and the Leibniz Pinball Arcade

alan turing

In 1953 there were only 53 kilobytes (KB) of Random Access Memory (RAM) on planet Earth.

Think about that for a second. What’s the average size of just one of those emails in your overflowing inbox?

It is amazing to think how far we have come in such a short space of time. Those 53 KB were not just on the one computer either, but actually scattered a good deal over the planet.

What’s more amazing to think about is what still lies around the corner. If you compare the timeline of computing to the timeline of the motor car you’ll quickly realise that we’ve not even reached Ford’s Model T stage yet. 

Even in the 1980’s my home computer – a Commodore 64 – while being incredibly liberating was also extremely limited. It was called the “64” for a reason: that was the sum total of RAM available. While it was a hell of a lot smaller than the 1953 computers, it’s fair to say that the capacity for storing code hadn’t improved a great deal in the intervening years.

Before reading Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson, I thought I was pretty much clued up on the origins and development of computing. After all, I knew quite a bit about Alan Turing and Charles Babbage, and had even dabbled myself with the hypothetical complexities of a Universal Turing Machine at university (it went badly).

Turns out I was only scratching the surface.

What was news to me was the role played by the fascinating Hungarian refugee John von Neumann at Princeton University, who went on to deliver in practice what Turing had achieved in theory. Part mathematician, part economist, and full on genius, Neumann had the vision, military connections (*cough*), and willpower to bring together all of the various jigsaw pieces needed to get the first computers up and running.

Nor did I know that this first computer was employed for two very distinct projects. During the day it was used by “Johnny” Neumann and his crew to test blast calculation theories for the development of the atomic bomb; by night it was run by a semi-crazy Norwegian/Italian called Nils Barricelli who was working on artificial intelligence and digital life-forms, whose end goal was to amplify electrical randomness into free-will.

Or, as Dyson puts it, “one program was dedicated to destroying life as we know it, the other to generating life of unknown forms”.

It was interesting to read too about the battles the early computer scientists at Princeton had to fight, as they were as much battles about prejudice as they were about engineering obstacles. Trapped somewhere in a grey zone between mathematics and engineering, the early computer scientists and engineers were viewed by some of the resident mathematicians and liberal arts practitioners with distaste: the introduction of their “machinery” brought an unnecessary “factory element” into their Cambridge-copied ivory towers. The computer engineers in particular bore the brunt of some outlandish snobbishness: they were not invited to the faculty tea.

But the invention of the computer goes back even further than these halcyon Princeton days: it was none less than Sir Francis Bacon who, back in 1623, established that all communication could be encoded digitally: “the transposition of two letters by five placings will be sufficient for thirty-two differences”. In other words he found that you could represent the alphabet in binary form, much like Morse code.

Where Bacon left off the grand-daddy of computing stepped in. Long before the Babbage Engine, the Turing Machine, the MANIAC, or indeed any of those first fundamental computing machines, it was Leibniz in 1697 who conceived of a machine that could run computations using – get this – marbles. The presence of a marble would represent a “1”, and the absence of a marble “0”. By passing marbles through a succession of physical gates, numbers could be added or subtracted.


The problem Leibniz solved with marbles was the same problem later solved more elaborately by Turing and executed by Neumann. The only difference was that the Princeton outcasts used electrical pulses instead.

Still, this makes me think of an interesting alternative universe. In this alternate world, rather than use hand held computing devices, we would have to visit giant arcade halls stuffed with millions of pinball machines in order to run our Excel spreadsheets. That would certainly make accountancy a more attractive career proposition. 

The obvious drawback is that in this alternative Leibniz world, you’d need a grid of 424,000 marbles to store less information than you find in your average email.

That’s a big bag of marbles and certainly not nearly as handy as an iPhone. Weird to think you’ve got the atomic bomb to thank for that.

Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson is out now.