“Wow” moments from Stuff Matters

I recently read Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters. It’s been pretty mindblowing, actually! Miodownik explains the beauty of the materials around us, like steel and paper and concrete. He brings us through the history of the material and also how it’s made, cracking some (pretty funny) jokes along the way. I can’t look at things the same again after he showed me the secret lives of the materials around all of us. Below are the quotes which made me stop and think; I never thought of things that way until I read it in this book.

  1. On stainless steel: “Chromium oxide is a transparent, hard mineral that sticks extremely well to steel. In other words, it doesn’t flake off and you don’t know it is there. Instead it creates an invisible, chemically protective layer over the whole surface of the steel. What’s more, we now know that the protective layer is self-healing; when you scratch stainless steel, even though you break the protective barrier, it re-forms.” (p18)
  2. “[…] it’s the transparent protective layer of chromium oxide [on stainless steel] that makes the [stainless steel] spoon tasteless, since your tongue never actually touches the metal and your saliva cannot react with it; it has meant that we are one of the first generations who have not had to taste our cutlery.” (p19)
  3. “There are very few materials as good [as paper is when acting as a wrapping material]: metal foils can hold a crease, but control of the crease is somewhat more difficult. Plastic sheeting doesn’t tend to hold a crease at all, unless it is very soft, in which case it lacks the rigidity (and formality) required of a good wrapping material. So it is its ability to hold a crease while remaining stiff that makes paper uniquely suited to this purpose.” (p32)
  4. “The move away from printed newspapers will change not just the internal dialogue of countries and cities but social habits too. The rustle of the paper will no longer be part of the ritual of Sunday afternoons; newspaper will no longer sit underneath muddy boots, or lounge folded up on train station benches; it will no longer protect floors from paint drips, or be wrapped around precious objects to protect them; it will no longer be crumpled into a ball, to light a fire, or be thrown cheekily at an unsuspecting sibling. None of these uses of newspaper are essential in themselves, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of a very domestic, useful, and much loved material. A material that will be missed.” (p47)
  5. “When concrete sets, it is reacting with the water [inside it], initiating a chain of chemical reactions to form a complex microstructure deep within the material, so that this material, despite having a lot of water locked up inside it, is not just dry but waterproof.” (p53)
  6. “Most people will never hold a piece of aerogel in their hand, but those who do never forget it. It is a unique experience. There is no weight to it that you can perceive, and its edges fade away so imperceptibly that it is impossible to see where the material stops and the air begins. Add to this its ghostly blue color and it really is like holding a piece of sky in your hand.” (p109)
  7. “The most effective glass, the stuff we build our modern cities from, is flat, thick, and perfectly transparent, but it is the least likable, the least knowable: the most invisible.” (p157)
  8. “Despite the complexity of their molecule architecture, these carbon nanotubes had a peculiar property: they could self-assemble. They needed no outside help in order to form these complex shapes, nor did they need high-tech equipment. They could do it in the smoke of a candle. […] It wasn’t just living organisms that could self-assemble into complex structures; the non-living world could do it too.” (p175)
  9. “Just for starters, graphene is the thinnest, strongest, and stiffest material in the world; it conducts heat faster than any other known material; it can carry more electricity, faster and with less resistance, than any other material; it allows Klein tunneling, an exotic quantum effect in which electrons within the material can tunnel through barriers as if they were not there.” (p177)
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