A compact, intense guided tour through a handful of physical materials, from concrete to chocolate, revealing what makes them profoundly affect our lives.
Materials make up everything, including us, writes Miodownik (Materials and Society/ University Coll. London), and knowing something of their history, cultural influence and psychophysics (the science of our sensual interaction with them) is a gateway to understanding the world’s inner and outer complexities. The author writes with enthusiasm, empathy and gratitude, making us care for concrete or foam as much as for Mr. Darcy or the Artful Dodger. He begins with the story of his stabbing by a panhandler with a razor knife. Being a schoolboy at the time, Miodownik was less concerned with his survival than he was fascinated by the razor. What a remarkable thing, to cut through all that winter clothing and still deliver a deep wound, he thought. What is steel, anyway? From there, he takes us through the miracle of alloys: why hammering a metal makes it stronger, why we likely wouldn’t have the pyramids without copper, what the samurai’s sword has in common with the compass’ needle. A photograph of himself having a cup of tea on the roof of his apartment building launches his exploration of the materials that make up his surroundings: paper, concrete, chocolate and its divine transformation of state, from bitter bean to “pure dark chocolate in your mouth [that] start[s] to liquefy” as the cocoa butter crystals commence to wobble. Miodownik investigates everything from the brilliant thermal properties of silica aerogel, used in insulation, to the atomic arrangement of diamonds, which have an “unusually high optical dispersion” that we call sparkle. Why we are so taken with porcelain and why a newspaper rustles are not mysteries to Miodownik, who helps us understand the complexity of inner structures.
Puts the wonder and strangeness back into all the truly magical stuff that comprises our everyday reality.