Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: Liquid

After recently finishing Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, I knew I had to read his other book, Liquid. Mark Miodownik has a very engaging writing style which makes it effortless to learn about new things (such as material science). Just like with Stuff Matters, Miodownik sets up Liquid in a very unusual yet effective way. Whilst on a transatlantic flight from London to San Francisco, Miodownik explores the hidden life of the liquids that he encounters on his flight, with each chapter dedicated to a different liquid (or group of liquids). It’s very common to see such a format in a wide range of nature writing, but not within popular science books, especially those related to more applied fields such as engineering. However, I feel that Miodownik has been able to make this format his own, with just the right amount of humour and anecdotes along the way to help keep the reader interested. After all, the world of liquids is complex and there are still many new discoveries awaiting us.

One of the things that really struck me about Liquid, is how environmentally conscious Miodownik is. This is especially true when exploring the wonders of sodium lauryl sulfate, a foaming agent derived from palm oil. If you read the list of ingredients on the back of a shampoo bottle, you’ll see that it contains sodium lauryl sulfate, or sodium laureth sulfate (a closely related molecule). They seem to be in virtually everything, from toothpastes to skin care products and the list goes on. Unfortunately, large tracts of the rainforests in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are cut down each year to help fuel the demand for palm oil. This deforestation not only contributes to climate change, but also defaunation. You may also have seen palm oil listed as one of the ingredients in the chocolate you had as a snack, or the sandwich you had for lunch. It’s almost inescapable and I’m happy to see that Miodownik makes the reader think about the environmental impact of the liquids in their life. This is seen again when exploring CFCs and the damage they did to the Ozone layer before being banned, something that I first learnt about as a teenager in GCSE science. However, not everyone will have had that same opportunity and whilst Liquid does focus heavily on engineering, it makes this conservationist happy too.

As a book, Liquid is a fantastic and enjoyable read. It has all of the hallmarks of Miodownik’s wit and humour, entwinned with facts and other relevant information regarding the different liquids in each chapter. Whilst I was well aware of some of the information, due in part because of Miodownik’s other work, it’s always fascinating to learn something new as well as refresh your memory in terms of things you’d learned previously. To me, the most interesting thing I learned throughout the whole book was the origin of the term ‘soap opera’ to describe the serialised dramas everyone watching on TV. These started out as radio shows and were sponsored by soap manufacturers, which explains how they get their name. Now I think about, it is quite logical but it isn’t a connection I would have got without help. There are dozens of other factoids like this implanted along the journey, as you travel with Miodownik and see the world through his eyes.

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