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Monday, July 01, 2019

Review: Stuff Matters

Stuff Matters is a book about materials science. It's written by a materials scientist, yet strives to be eminently readable and non-technical. This is both a good and a bad thing. It's a good thing in that anyone can read this book and come away with a good understanding of how important material science is. It's a bad thing in that all the theories and technical ideas have been hand-waved away, so I ended up learning less than I thought I would from the book.

Early on, the book explains that materials science is largely about the electrons in the material, and how they form clouds which enable conduction or impede the flow of electrons as insulators do. But beyond that, there's no sense of how for instance, you would use this information to invent new materials.

I did enjoy all the explanations of the difference between chocolate and cocoa, and why only the temperate regions tend to be the large consumers of chocolate.
In a list of the countries with the highest consumption of chocolate, Switzerland comes top, followed by Austria, Ireland, Germany, and Norway. In fact, sixteen of the twenty countries with the highest chocolate consumption are Northern European. (In America, chocolate is more popular as a flavor than as a bar, with more than half the population saying they preferred chocolate drinks, cakes, and biscuits than any other flavor.) Given the reputation of chocolate as a substitute for sex, it is tempting to draw all sorts of cultural conclusions from this correlation. But there is another possible explanation for the high chocolate consumption in these countries, which is also associated with temperature. In order to transform from a solid to a liquid easily within the mouth, chocolate requires a fairly cool ambient temperature. In a climate that is too warm, chocolate will either melt on the shelf or need to be put in the fridge, which defeats the purpose entirely—cold chocolate gets swallowed before it’s had a chance to melt. (This problem may explain, perhaps, why the Mesoamericans, who first invented chocolate in the tropics, never created a solid bar but consumed it only as a drink.) Moreover, if solid chocolate is exposed to temperatures above 20°C, as a result perhaps of being left in the sun or in a hot car, it undergoes fundamental changes of structure. The changes can be spotted immediately because they result in “bloom”: fat and sugars migrate to the surface of the chocolate and form a whitish crystalline powder, often with a river mark pattern. (Pg. 88)
Other great stories in the book involve concrete, graphene, including other forms of carbon such as diamonds, coal, etc. That I found fascinating, including the discussion about how long it took for carbon fiber to gain adoption in the aerospace industry.

The stories about steel was also interesting. In fact, the whole book is great, especially the details about how steel reinforced concrete works, and the possibility of self healing concrete. There's a lot in this book, so despite the lack of technical details I can recommend it for reading.

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