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‘Stuff Matters’ explores the science behind everyday objects

Engineer takes an atomic-level look at plastics, glass, chocolate and more

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4:00pm, July 26, 2014

MATERIAL MAGIC  Sometimes called “frozen smoke,” silica aerogel can protect skin from an open flame because its airy structure makes it a great insulator.

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Stuff Matters 
Mark Miodownik
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26

To capture tiny flecks of comet dust whizzing through space, NASA scientists on the 1999 Stardust mission turned to silica aerogel. Aerogel’s fine, glassy skeleton brought cosmic particles traveling at 18,000 kilometers per hour to a dead stop without damaging them, trapping the raw components of the solar system and transporting them home for study. It’s also an incredible insulator, since its porous structure puts up an effective barrier to heat. Not bad for something that’s 99.8 percent air.

“I have spent the vast majority of my time obsessing about materials,” writes Miodownik, an engineer and materials scientist. He’s not kidding: His book showcases his passion for all kinds of stuff, from exotic aerogels and carbon nanotubes to more mundane matter like paper, metals and plastics.

Some materials are so commonplace that it’s easy to take them for granted, like the layer of chromium oxide that renders a stainless steel spoon tasteless and prevents it from interfering with the flavors in your soup. Others have a hint of science fiction about them. Concrete embedded with calcite-producing bacteria, for instance, may one day support buildings that can fix cracks as they appear.

Explaining why glass is clear or how diamonds form means delving into atomic properties and quantum mechanics. But Miodownik distills the difficult physics and chemistry down to a reader-friendly tour of the human-made world, enlivened by his sense of humor and his enthusiasm for the subject. Whether or not the book inspires an obsession as deep as the author’s, it does bestow a greater appreciation for the stuff of everyday life.

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