How Glass Made The West Smart– And Diamonds Rings Made Us Stupid


As far as my own tastes go, I wish Mark Miodownik, in his very readable book Stuff Matters, would have just stuck to his explanations of the histories and properties of the several different materials he analyzes, and stayed away from his personal anecdotes.  His attempt at dramatization in one chapter (I believe it was on Paper) compelled me to skip the entire section because I couldn’t take the novelization approach. That said, I’m sure that the very thing I most disliked about the book is the very thing that many people feel sets the book apart (in a positive way) from other pop-science books. Mr Miodownik’s editor and/or publisher probably pushed him to make the book as personal as possible.  And I’d say he succeeded.  Much to my chagrin…

Miodownik provides the reader with numerous interesting facts, but as return-readers of my blog will know, it is the big-picture stuff which really excites me– and Miodownk does provide…  

For example, Miodownik suggests that the major development which allowed the West to outdistance China in science and technology was the invention of good GLASS. Glass meant lenses, and lenses meant, eventually, microscopes and telescopes– and we should also not under-rate the humble set of spectacles as an instrument beneficial to learning and advancement. I really think Miodownik has hit upon something here. Isn’t it so interesting how history can turn upon this or that particular happenstance?

Probably the thing that nextmost fascinated me was the author’s description of HOW Japan equipped its samurai with the best swords in the world. Apparently, part of the art of sword-making has always been finding that balance between strength, sharpness, and wieldability. The Japanese figured out that they could have the best of all worlds by making their swords with LOW-carbon steel in the center and HIGH-carbon steel around the edges. The low-carbon in the center made the metal subtly softer– and thus, less likely to snap. The higher carbon on the edges made the metal more brittle, yes– but also allowed the sword to be sharpened razor-sharp. It was, in other words, the perfect sword.

Miodownik also pointed-out some of the materials that our own age might be remembered for…  Materials such as: stainless steel, plastic, and silicon. Interestingly, those who claim that life is moving faster today than it ever has before –seem to have a point…  Before the 20th century, possession of a single important, technologically advanced material could define a culture for centuries… Consider the “stone” age, or “bronze” age or “iron” age… But by the time we get to the twentieth century, we have plethora of era-defining gadgets and materials to choose from.

So now, here is where I make the prediction that some future descendant of mine may laugh at if he ever comes across these words… The prediction is this:  I think we have now surpassed the peak of the rate of change in day-to-day life due to technological advancement.  Oh, we’ll still make advances no doubt, but I predict that the rate of advancement will continue to slow. I may seem naive, but think about this: for awhile there, in about the mid-1900s, the fantasies of science fiction writers were being outpaced by actual technological developments in the real world. However, the rate of advancement slowed, and in not very long, writers were putting the “fiction” back in “science fiction.”  As I’ve heard said before– “we were promised jetpacks” by now!  And where the hell are my flying cars and my Star Trek style, medical diagnostic tri-corder and the accompanying shots for whatever ails ya?

But back to Stuff Matters… Miodownik shares with us the fact that engagement rings did not “have” to be diamonds until the early 1900s, when the diamond industry began its “diamonds are forever” campaign.  Shouldn’t we all feel like a bunch of suckers for falling for such profit-driven propaganda?  Some of these rings would make a nice-sized downpayment on a house!  But we’re too afraid of feeling inadequate in front of others to be brave enough to buy or wear non-diamond engagement rings.  (For that matter, who says we need engagement rings at all?– Why not just tattoo “taken” on our foreheads instead?– it’d be a lot cheaper and would also last a life-time.)  

I love anyone or anything that can help enable me see familiar things again for the first time. That’s the great thing about children (well, that and they can make me feel really, really smart). For anyone like me, Miodownik’s book is def worth the time– even in spite of the schmaltz factor.  It makes you feel smarter when you’re done.


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