This book is meant to make you think about all the stuff that surrounds you. Not the clutter, but the stuff that that clutter is made of. The metal in your chair, the cloth of your clothes, the paper of the book you’re reading. We take the materials in our world largely for granted, but there was a lot of time and effort put in to discovering and inventing all of the materials that we encounter in our daily lives. The book is divided into chapters, and each one has a different structure to it, much like the different structures of the materials being discussed. There is a lot of information in this book, so let’s see what I remember, shall we? (These are mostly in order, but I’m pretty sure I screwed up somewhere.) (Also, the audiobook is narrated by a very British Michael Page, so it makes this all feel kind of old, but it really is fairly recent. I feel like he’s narrating it from a leather wing-backed chair with a whisky and cigar, but that might just be me.)
This was the first section, so it was a lot of information ago. Um, cutlery is coated in chromium, so we don’t taste our cutlery anymore. The Romans would bury steel nails and other bits if they abandoned an area so as to not give an advantage to the enemy. The guy who figured out how to make steel cheaply didn’t quite get it right the first time, so when he managed to get it reliably right, a lot of people ignored him, so then he made all the money himself.
There are many uses of paper, so this section is broken up a bit. The author talks about photographs and receipts, and goes on very poetically about love letters. It’s very sweet.
Some concrete can be self-healing with the help of bacteria. Neat.
The biggest thing I took away from this section was that when you eat chocolate, you’re supposed to let it sit in your mouth to melt, when it then becomes hot chocolate. Mind blown. Also, how anyone ever thought to make chocolate is beyond me. Maybe the chocolate process is the true evidence of time travellers? (That last bit is just me, it’s not in the book.)
This section is written in the form of a screenplay, to eventually show how the development of plastics led to the development of movies. It all starts with the hunt for a replacement material for ivory to make billiard balls. We get to see the material explode (sometimes literally) to become jewelry, cavity fillings, and photo film.
Aerogel is really cool. It is lightweight, and basically invisible. It was used to capture space dust from a comet. It was developed in some ways by people trying to remove the liquid from a jelly. So, thanks, Jell-o?
The Asian countries didn’t really bother with glass, so they were about 1000 years behind scientific discoveries in the fields of microbiology and astronomy, due to the lack of microscopes and telescopes. The development of glass changed the world of booze as well! Once people could see their wine and beer, color and clarity mattered.
Diamonds eventually turn into graphite. Who knew? The difference between diamond and graphite and coal and other forms of carbon is how the chemical bonds are structured. There are some things that have been discovered to be harder than diamond, but there isn’t very much of it, and I think it has to do with things falling from space.
Ceramics and Porcelain
The invention of porcelain took place in China, and was a carefully guarded secret. There were different methods of making it and one of the ways of displaying it was with vases, so we get Ming vases and stuff like that. Another way of displaying the craft was with teacups, so the ceremony of drinking tea is partially due to porcelain.
Human Body and Biomedics
Our bodies are made of stuff, and we can put other materials into our bodies to replace that stuff. This section wasn’t really my favorite, but that could have been due to the overload of information at this point.
This was a whole lot of information, more than I can easily recall from the audio version. If you weren’t a fan of science back in school, maybe give this a miss, especially if Chemistry was your arch nemesis. But otherwise, it gives a new perspective on the materials we take for granted every day. I’ve learned that many things are made of crystals (if I had a dollar for every time he said “crystal” I’d have a whole lot of dollars.) I think the one practical thing I took away from this was a new appreciation of chocolate, and I’m pretty sure that’s good enough for the author. If you have the option, you may want to try the print version for charts and things like that.
(When I was going through our Summer Reading tickets, I saw that one of our teens had also read/listened to this!)
This fulfills the CBR11 Bingo square of
“Science!” “Reader’s Choice” in place of the “Pajiba” square!