Some of the mundane materials most of us take for granted—plastic, paper, glass—are miraculous when you think about them. Glass’s strength, for instance, protects us from the elements as its transparency allows light to shine through; without such a material houses and buildings would be decidedly dreary. Just what gives glass these properties? It’s all in the chemistry, materials scientist Mark Miodownik of University College London explains in his new book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World (May 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Miodownik’s book chronicles the extraordinary science behind the ordinary objects that surround us. Chapters are devoted to steel, glass, chocolate, concrete, plastic and other constituents of our modern world, explaining their history and why their chemical properties produce the effects we rely on. Miodownik recently spoke with Scientific American about why plastic gets a bad rap, what material is ideal for bathroom construction and how he plans to build a wearable exoskeleton.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
Why are materials so fascinating?
Materials are an expression of our values. We want to be protected from extreme weather, so we invent concrete. We want to live in open, light places but keep out the rain, so we invent glass. By getting to know these materials, you get to know yourself, and humanity in general.
Does studying materials make you really particular about the materials you use in your daily life?
I am a bit obsessive. We recently redid our bathroom, and that was just one long moment of considering: Why are bathrooms full of materials that are cold to the touch when you're naked? I spent time thinking about how we want to be warm and comfy and private, and yet the feeling of coldness reinforces cleanliness. It turns out bamboo is the perfect material, I think, for bathrooms. It has antibacterial properties; it’s really hard-wearing; it’s very warm to the touch; it’s smooth. The only real problem with it is that when you fall into that realm the whole thing looks like a Swedish sauna.
In your book you describe chocolate as a solid drink—a solid that is engineered to turn into a liquid inside your mouth. Do you think its material properties account for its popularity even more than its flavor?
I do think that. There's a quality of the mouth-feel you get with chocolate that you get with no other food or confectionary. Even something like a chocolate mousse I find inferior to putting a really good piece of chocolate on your tongue and just waiting, just letting it turn into a liquid. That process pushes a lot of sensory pleasure buttons. Chocolate is as technically sophisticated as steel. It’s just a genius of science and engineering.
You describe how the Japanese samurai achieved matchless sword-making skills long before science understood steel. How did they do it?
Obviously the big problem with steel is that what you're trying to do is at the atomic scale—at the microscale—but unless you've got microscopes you can’t see any of this stuff. They were manipulating this thing at the scale of humans. They dealt with their hands. That’s just impressive.
It shows that you underestimate your ancestors at your peril. They were probably much more in touch with things we’ve lost, which is the ability to pick something up and really understand it with your hands, and to spend 30 years doing it to the point where you really understand it.
You've said you like to defend plastic. Do you think it has an undeservedly bad reputation?
I think it is misunderstood. I don’t think plastics are wholly good but they’re not wholly bad either. Recycling plastic is really tricky and it degrades really easily in the process. That’s not the fault of plastic, but it is a problem we need to take seriously.
Yet if you took plastic away from people’s lives they would regress about 100 years in terms of their comforts. Take away [synthetic rubber] tires for instance—where would we be? Plastic is so a part of our lives and it provides a cushion, literally, in many cases: your seat, bed, pillows, the filling inside your warm jacket. People lazily dismiss something as, “That's a plastic, it’s got less value.” But it definitely expresses something about humans, which is that we ultimately want a bit of comfort—and it’s plastic that gives it to us.
What is your latest research on?
I’ve got a research program making self-healing materials, self-repairing materials, so-called smart materials. I spent a lot of my life before this doing fundamental research into how material properties come about. I didn’t want to get to the end of my career and just think, “I know a lot about them.” I want to use that knowledge to create new things in the world.
We’re developing a wearable exoskeleton. It’s a piece of clothing you wear that is going to be able to change shape and create a way of supporting your knees and hips and arms when you need it. It will understand if some of your faculties are impaired—you might have an injury or be disabled. But we want you not to feel this is an external piece of technology—you respond to it.
Fashion people are tapping into your emotional needs. We need to do that and also create a medical device and something that can be washed in the washing machine. So we’re bringing together teams of people who understand different parts of that problem. We’ve got designers, chemists, engineers and patients themselves.
Do you think materials science gets short shrift in popular consciousness?
Materials science doesn’t have an image problem; it’s just invisible and that’s the real problem for it. If you’re talking about graphene, people slap it into physical chemistry or they’ll talk about buildings and label it architecture. Material science really is the multiscale view of the world, how it all interconnects.
I am on a bit of a mission, actually. It really ought to have a bigger place in the public imagination and it doesn’t. That is what I am trying to do.
That’s evident from the title: Stuff Matters. What do you hope people take away from the book?
I want them to look at the world differently and see the richness of the urban world in the same way they would appreciate a tropical forest. In a forest you get awed by nature, the birds, the insects. And I just don’t see anything different in a modern city. Each one of those materials is incredibly sophisticated and has an enormous body of people around it who care about it and make it what it is. I just wanted to give people an insight into that.