Miodownik (Materials and Society/Univ. College London; Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, 2014) follows up his prizewinning debut with an equally focused tour of liquids, “the alter ego of dependable solid stuff.”
Liquids, writes the author in his loquacious introduction, are “anarchic” and “have a knack for destroying things.” When not properly contained, “they are always on the move, seeping, corroding, dripping and escaping our control.” To shape his meditation on liquids, Miodownik presents something of a contained laboratory by setting his entire thesis within the bounds of his nonstop flight from London to San Francisco. (He does make some digressions and asides along the way.) The author begins with the explosive properties of his airplane’s fuel before moving on to the intoxicating properties of the plane’s cocktail offerings and an account of his near-death experience in the frigid waters of a popular swimming hole in Dublin. Frightened fliers may take comfort from the chapter titled “Sticky,” in which Miodownik explores the nigh-unbreakable resins that hold many of the plane’s parts together. “Fantastic” is a bit of a stretch for the chapter that examines the liquid crystals that enable the author to watch Spider-Man, with a detour to ponder The Picture of Dorian Gray. The chapters on body fluids, tea, and soap are mostly by-the-numbers, but the author’s enthusiasm and wry humor even make these relatively banal substances entertaining. His stories and semilectures are also punctuated by illustrations, photographs, and some of the molecular formulas of the liquids he analyzes. We even get a few history lessons—e.g., how chemist Thomas Midgley poisoned himself by accident in inventing the freon liquid that would later prove so handy in air conditioners; and the odd tale of László Biro, told via Miodownik’s need of a pen. The author closes with a chapter on liquids and sustainability.
Another cleverly told and engagingly accessible study of the stuff around us.