In his book Stuff Matters Mark Miodownik explores the world of every day materials that shape our lives and understandings of the world. He looks at steel, concrete, foam, and more to show us how complex our seemingly simple world is. He continually reveals the misconceptions people have about the materials in our daily world by telling the backstory of materials and presenting them in an almost lifelike manner. Miodownik writes, “materials are not static things: they respond to their environment, and especially to temperature.”
I think Miodownik’s quote is a great one for people outside of the general science or material science community because it begins to reveal and explain the complex nature of the built world. We often are appalled when systems fail (think of a train wreck, the BP oil spill, or crumbling concrete infrastructure) but few of us understand just how those systems operate and what forces limit or strain our engineering. It is easy to criticize a company or government when materials are not holding up to our demands, but simple criticism ignores the fact that our products face factors and variables that are sometimes impossible to know or predict. Through science and testing we can develop systems that are more secure and sound, but we will never be able to account for 100% of the anomalies that any given bridge, airplane, or coffee table will face.
I recently read Joel Achenbach’s recount of the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, and throughout his book he highlights the fact that our engineered planet has become so complex that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen (or even the President of the United States) to truly understand how everything is organized. What I have taken away from these two books is that we need to be more patient with the world around us. We can hold engineers, car companies, and manufacturers to very high standards, but we should also expect and be prepared for systems to fail. Oftentimes a failure in our built world is not the result of a single overlooked, poorly built, or sloppily assembled unit, but rather the result of anomalous strains and individually inconsequential shortfalls. Developing a better understanding of the built world around us will help us react and respond better to our materials and their potential failures. The more we know about science and the current state of science the more likely we are to support development, and when things go wrong, the less likely we are to point fingers as opposed to aid the development of novel solutions.