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Book Review: ‘Stuff Matters’ by Mark Miodownik – Exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world.

Author:                        Mark Miodownik

Publisher:                    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication Date:        May 27, 2014

Print length:                272 pages

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World takes the reader through a fascinating journey of discovery as the author studies ordinary objects to uncover fascinating secrets about the materials that make our physical world together. From the cultural impact of plastic to modernization of self-healing concrete, Miodownik takes the reader through a microscopic look at everyday things we hardly notice, revealing the engineering marvels that infiltrate our lives. An absorbing contemplation on why materials look and act the way they do; Stuff Matters will teach the reader to see the material world (rather the world of martials) in a completely new approach.

The real difference between materials are deep below the surface, a world that is shut off from the most unless they have access to sophisticated scientific equipment.

The author narrates the story of ten ingredients which provide us with much of the substance that ambiances us. Midownik expresses his passion for the useful, emotive, and sensory aspect of materials such as steel, concrete, ceramics, polymers, glass, and more. Arguably the most interesting chapter for the average reader may be the one on paper. In his commentary on paper, Midownik describes all the different aspects of paper- from the wrapping paper to the office stationary. This thousands of years of old technology is gradually leaving from our lives as the digital ecosphere replaces printing or writing letters on sheets of paper.

Although the Pantheon survived the fall of the Roman Empire, concrete as a material did not.

to the author, another Roman invention, concrete is almost as enduring as books. The author explains how Roman Empire used concrete to construct some of its longest-lasting structures, like the dome of the Pantheon, which has stood for more than 20 centuries and remains the world’s oldest unreinforced concrete structure. Miodownik further elaborates on how, despite its sturdiness, concrete’s fragility had become a problem, the Romans were unable to solve. When he turns to plastics, Miodownik celebrates celluloid, which he said has had the largest cultural impact. Without it, film would have been impossible. The author also takes a moment to talk about craft inventions that were created before the scientific age. Miodownik concludes that materials are so much more than “blobs of differently colored matter”—they are marvels, and looking at them a little closer allows us to gain insight into the reasons they look and act the way they do.

The author’s thoughtful and careful study of ingredients makes that the vivid reader will never look at our everyday stuff the same way again. Both the knowledgeable author and the interesting storyteller in him, deserve the readers’ praise for opening their eyes to the deeper value of objects and materials that often ignore.

Book Review: Molecules: the elements and the architecture of everything by Theodore Gray

The Author –  Theodore Gray

Photographs by Nick Mann

Published on – 2014

Published by – Black Dog & Leventhal 

ISBN 9781579129712

The hundred or so Elements of the Periodic Table, are finite and Molecules are not. There may be only seven different chess pieces but the combinations which can be made on the board by these seven pieces are unlimited. Though there are almost as many categories of Molecules as there are Molecules, that’s why the author Theodore Gray has chosen to write about only the interesting Molecules, the ones that illustrate deeper connections and border concepts that unify them all.

The world of compounds is so wide and diverse that you could make up a large chemistry set focused on even a tiny fraction of it.

If your expectation is a Chemistry Text Book with standard presentation of compounds, this books goes way far beyond that. In its presentation, this is a typical coffee table kind of a book with nice pictures but it had turned out to be a lot more. Supported by Nick Mann’s beautiful photographs, Molecules is a serious attempt to explain the world of chemical compounds to the reader without assuming previous science knowledge.

Gray begins with an explanation of how atoms bond to form molecules and compounds, as well as the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry. He then goes on to explore the vast array of materials molecules can create, including: soaps and solvents; goops and oils; rocks and ores; ropes and fibers; painkillers and dangerous drugs; sweeteners; perfumes and stink bombs; colors and pigments; and controversial compounds. Finally, Gray concludes his commentary on compounds with the most horrible and very bad inorganic compound ever, Asbestos.

Though there is no chapter specially on acids and bases in this book, the first three chapters familiarize the reader with the notions of atoms, elements and chemical structures. The sections ‘compounds’ and ‘molecules’ give simple but meaningful introductions to ionic and covalent bonds. The readers will surely appreciate how Gray has added his personal touch to every segment of text by carefully compiling historic, scientific and other facts into concise, clear and easy to read chunks of knowledge, throughout the book.

Nick Mann, the photographer has done every justice to this book by capturing very clear and striking photographs of the elements and molecules, as well as diagrams of the compounds. He has captured molecules in their various states and their chemical bonds as well. These pictures go wonderfully alongside the chemical structures; which Gray chose to depict with a diffuse glow around the atoms: a reminder that molecules aren’t little balls connected by sticks but rather an assembly of nuclei surrounded by fuzzy electron clouds.

At the designated price, this book is well worth for the money and will make even a fantastic present for a science lover.

Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Book – The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Author –  Sam Kean

Published on – July 12, 2010

Published by – Little, Brown and Company 

This book can be described as the story telling at its best. The author, Sam Kean describes the evolution of the periodic table with real life stories on how the elements were discovered by their inventors. Kean narrates about the lives of these inventors such as  Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and how their findings impacted on the industry as well as their personal lives. For example, how the  theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer facing comparative disadvantages owing to her sex, though she won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her outstanding work.

Then this Pons and Fleischmann story about “Cold Fusion” might be one of the top stories that this book carries.  In 1989, two electrochemistsMartin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, reported that their apparatus had produced excess heat of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes. Kean describes how this experiment made and unmade Pons and Fleischmann within a few months of time, from being a part of historical scientific breakthrough to being a part of a well-orchestrated con act.  

Pons and Fleischmann with their apparatus of “Cold Fusion” experiment

From “Cold Fusion” story of Pons and Fleischmann, Kean makes his way to introduce pathological science by narrating the story of William Crookes. Due to the grief of the tragic loos of his brother, William Crooks has turned to spiritualism to try to communicate with his brother. He published “Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena Called Spiritual” in 1874 and his coworkers thought he was crazy. Crookes eventually left the spiritual research and returned to science and focused on other topics. He finally ends up being a key contributor to the body of knowledge of chemistry.

The theme of each chapter – politics, money, war, the arts, health, toxins, radiation and so on – is prescribed by groups of elements in the periodic table and the things they tell us about the nature of matter; about the stardust origins of the elements; about the compounds they make and why some elements are more reactive than others; and why the table falls into a pattern so obvious that its begetters were able to predict the characteristics of elements not yet identified. The pace is enthusiastic, the tone and language are pitched at the young or the non-chemical and the examples are pleasingly unexpected.

Kean tells the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. Many scientists were attempting to be the first people to reach the South Pole, but a team led by Roald Amundsen had already reached it. The Amundsen team safely returned from the journey, but Scott’s team was delayed at the pole due to snow flurries and fuel supplies lost due to the high temperatures. Robert Falcon Scott and his companions died on the South Pole.

Kean discusses elements that were put through extreme temperatures to be able to get a sample. Xenon and krypton were put to temperatures as low as −240 F. Kean explains how laser beams are produced by yttrium and neodymium. Kean states that the most powerful laser has more power than the US and it uses crystals of yttrium spiked with neodymium. While lasers produce visible light, masers do not, instead produce microwaves. Masers were considered impossible until Charles Townes worked on them, earning him a Nobel Prize in 1964.

Kean should get the credit for coming up with a book on the subject of chemistry which even a non-chemist can read end to end in a one go due to Kean’s demonstrated ability of top story telling.

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