We have always lived in a material age of one kind or another. It is just the nature of the dominant substance that has altered — as we can see in the names we have given to the world's key stages of civilisation: the stone age, bronze age and iron age. And the process has continued, says Mark Miodownik in his splendid Stuff Matters (Viking). "Steel was the defining age of the Victorian era … while the 20th century is often hailed as the age of silicon," he points out.Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made Worldby Mark Miodownik Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book
Today a vast library of modern materials underpins our lives and makes them bearable: from chocolates that are artfully structured to explode like taste-bombs in our mouths to carbon-fibre technology, which has transformed sports including cycling, tennis and Formula One, and which might be used one day to construct a "space ladder", a passenger elevator that would rise from Earth's equator to an orbiting spaceship.
In short, stuff matters – for without modern materials, "we would quickly be confronted by the same basic struggle for survival that animals are faced with," argues Miodownik in this artfully crafted, hugely enjoyable study.
Serving the Reich (Bodley Head) by Philip Ball, and Churchill's Bomb (Faber) by Graham Farmelo, look at how Germany and Britain respectively lost the race to be the first nation to build atomic weapons. Ball's narrative reveals a nation stuck in an ethical quagmire in which its quiescent, subservient scientists – including several Nobel prize winners – proved fundamentally lacking in morals and intellect. For his part, Farmelo provides us with a vision of a great leader, Churchill, who hesitated fatally when Britain was given, by the US, the offer of an equal share in the development of the A-bomb. Both books offer intriguing insights into the pursuit of science then and now.
Finally, in What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? (Profile), Tony Juniper gives the reader a readable, timely vision of the natural world as a recycler of waste, controller of disease and mighty carbon storage system – a living entity that we take for granted at our peril.