Materials book wins Royal Society Winton Prize

By Melissa Hogenboom
Science reporter, BBC News

image copyrightPenguin

A book exploring the importance of materials has won the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Prof Mark Miodownik's Stuff Matters looks at everything from the everyday objects in our home to new wonder materials that will shape our future.

His work beat five other titles covering topics ranging from biomedical innovations to the elements that have changed our world.

The judges decided unanimously to award Prof Miodownik the £25,000 prize.

Each of the five runners-up received £2,500.

The full title of Prof Miodownik's work is: Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World.

He said he was staggered and really surprised to win.

"I feel honoured, happy and overwhelmed, it does feel dream like to me, these things don't normally happen. When I started, I had no idea how to write."

His fascination with materials began after he was stabbed in the back with a steel razor blade "not much bigger than a postage stamp" by a mugger.

He became obsessed with how such a small object could be so sharp, strong and capable of easily cutting through five layers of clothes.

"This stuff around us is speaking through me. Materials are not inert things, I hope I have given them a voice in this book. I think it's an important story."

Being "hands on", he said, was a crucial part of how we interacted with the world.

image captionProf Mark Miodownik's interest in materials began when he was stabbed with a small razor blade

"Everything is made of something, and that stuff is us, it's a mirror. These are our values, things we fear, things we cherish, this is our comfort, our ambitions. Take it away and we're all standing naked in a field," he told BBC News.

Chairwoman of the judges, Prof Nicola Clayton, from the University of Cambridge, said the work was enthralling and written with "great passion and insight".

She said: "It's a really inspiring book. I think the biggest test for me is if you read a popular science book and it's not in your area - I'm a psychologist - you read a book like that and think, 'If I had my time again perhaps I should have done a degree in that.'

"He explained everything really well in an enthusiastic way and, let's face it, not many books start with a stabbing and have a chapter on chocolate," Prof Clayton added.

Last year's winner featured an account of the hunt for the Higgs boson by Dr Sean Carroll, and previous winners have included Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson.

The full shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books was:

  • Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball (The Bodley Head)
  • Seven Elements That Have Changed The World: Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium, Silicon by John Browne (Weidenfeld & Nicolson - an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group)
  • The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira (Little, Brown Book Group)
  • The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery by George Johnson (The Bodley Head)
  • Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik (Viking - an imprint of Penguin Books)
  • Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (Oneworld)

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