Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
The author is a material scientist who holds the position of professor of “materials and society” at University College London. His somewhat quirky title gives a hint about the contents and organization of the book: it deals not only with the incredible and unexpected properties of various man-made materials, but also with the way that humans relate and react to those materials. Ten materials are explored in all, each with a separate chapter.
I must admit that I found the explanations of the make-up of the materials – especially the ways in which they are not at all the “solids” they appear to be – more interesting than the author’s musings on the way these items shaped society. As the author repeatedly demonstrates:
“The central idea behind materials science is that changes at … invisibly small scales impact a material’s behavior at the human scale. It is this process that our ancestors stumbled upon to make new materials such as bronze and steel, even though they did not have the microscopes to see what they were doing – an amazing achievement.”
He shares many fascinating observations about the property of “stuff”: for example, he describes silica aerogel, a material that is 99.8% air, which may be the least dense solid in the universe, but which is being successfully used by NASA to harvest space dust from comets. He explains why diamonds have such unique and remarkable properties, why paperclips bend, and why elastic stretches. And he tells how the use of glass for serving beer changed the whole nature of the brewing industry. Likewise, his observations on how more prosaic materials like paper, steel, ceramics, and concrete were developed and how they shaped the modern world are worth reading.
On the other hand, I wasn’t so much taken with his inclusion into the narrative mix of “psychophysics,” the study of how humans react sensually to materials.
Nevertheless, the author is engaging, and there are plenty of photos and diagrams throughout the book to elucidate that which he wants to convey.
Evaluation: This is a short, easy read with lots of interesting factoids.
Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014