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Science Book Club Episode 6

These materials are a reflection of who we are.

Yeah, well, cause and effect in people’s lives, this is not a science, we do not know.  In the book I talk about how I, you know, I got stabbed, I mean, it’s a very traumatic moment in your life.  There are lots of traumatic moments in your life like getting dumped by your first girlfriend and I could attribute all those different things to this cause and effect moment that led me on a path towards materials science but, ah, I guess being stabbed is a big one because I ended up in a police station and really trying to understand what a razor was.  What, or, how something so small could be so sharp and why it was that you didn’t have to have something big to kill you.  It seemed to me odd, that.  Surely if you had something big, it’d kill you, but no, tiny razors can kill you, I could slit your throat, and I got stabbed in the back with one and it sliced through five layers of clothing and my epidermis and dermis, you know, and, wow, what else could it do and of course, you know, you get to thinking about metals and why you can do that with a metal but you can’t do that with a plastic.  And, so, why are all knives made of metal and then it turns out they’re not and then, you know, you just keep asking why, right?  And you end up as a scientist.

Well, everything is made of something, so you know, whether it’s this wooden floor, or you know the lense in that camera, or the CCD chip that’s recording this or whether it’s the piezoelectric crystals in your earphones or my microphone or whether it’s the cotton of my shirt or, you know there’s just no end to it.  I’ve got these rubber shoes on which I love, they give me a bit of spring in my step.  Where does that stuff all come from?  If you take all that stuff away, we’re all left naked in a forest, brutally fighting each other for you know, survival probably.

So all of this stuff, this building, cars, planes, food itself, all of it is this urge to create materials.  So although atoms exist in the Universe without us, materials don’t.  This is a very human thing (looks round the room) all of this is by us, we created it.  What does it mean? Where did it come from?  How do you understand it? What does it do?  That’s the book. And the big thesis of the book, apart from unpicking the science behind it all, is that actually these materials are a reflection of who we are.  That we are fragile beasts, we find it hard when it’s raining and windy all the time so we need protection, so we create materials that will protect us – that’s called concrete.  It means that we can feel secure on the planet.

We don’t like being in the dark so we invent something called glass, and now we have these wonderful shiny windows and you know, enormous patio doors that you can open.  This is an expression of wanting to be protected from the weather but also not living in dark caves.

So you can pick any material round here or in your own lives and you can deconstruct the value system of the human race and that’s, I think, a really important message.

‘Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World’ is OUT NOW.

Get it in Hardback or directly on your iPad through the iBook Store