Softies

Sensitive Matter: Foams, Gels, Liquid Crystals, and Other Miracles by Michel Mitov

Review by Amanda Mead

What do carrots and a flat-screen television have in common? Put this orange tuber root next to a 40” high definition TV, and the shared elements might not be obvious. But according to physicist and research scientist Michel Mitov, it’s soft matter that makes the difference.

In Sensitive Matter, Mitov addresses the mysteries behind the bubbles in champagne, the controlled release of drugs, and the ‘polywater’ that inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s controversial Cat’s Cradle.  The everyday object is more than what meets the eye, holding within itself the complexities of sensitive, soft, matter.

Sensitive Matter clarifies the mysteries of these lesser-asked and more obscure questions in science. Mitov utilizes each chapter as a lesson in physics, dealing with one individual concept at a time. If you don’t remember your grade-school lessons on the different parts of a cell or how surface tension works, you’ll feel as if no time has passed as Mitov describes the thread-like liquid crystals of soft matter arranged like a school of fish, or quicksand as a reference to the maximum angle of stability.

Mitov narrates the text in a conversational tone using anecdotes to help make unfamiliar terms like colloid or chromotherapy more accessible to the reader. Mitov tells the story of Charles Goodyear, a man whose experimental accident ended in the discovery of rubber that wouldn’t melt in the summer or crack in the winter. Mitov exemplifies how invention can precede explanation, as the science fiction of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle anticipated the pathological science of Nikolai Fedyakin in the 1960s. With these anecdotes Mitov seemingly reminds us of the volatility science can encounter – believing himself that with new discoveries and evidence, science can always be modified.

When anecdotes are absent it is easy to get lost in all the terminology. If you aren’t familiar with scientific texts, Sensitive Matter may require a highlighter – tables, charts, and photographs placed throughout the book accompany the text although these lack direct reference points and indices. Although these figures and images are helpful in their own right, their structural positioning is a detriment to the text.

Sensitive Matter opens and closes with a fascinating religious ritual that is regarded as both a sacred miracle and a wonder of science. Three times a year on the cobblestone streets of Naples, the reliquary of St. Januarius is carried from the Cathedral to the Church of St. Clare. Within the largest vial of the reliquary is the dried blood of Saint Januarius and if all goes as hoped, this blood will liquefy upon arriving at the Church. As a physicist and scientific researcher who bases his studies on hard evidence, it may seem strange for Mitov to travel to Naples to research and witness this religious ritual. But if Mitov is addressing soft matter in the everyday, then it is also appropriate that he include the mysteries of soft matter in the not-so-everyday. The last chapter is dedicated to Mitov’s experience and impressions of the ritual including the conclusions of other scientists in the field and the sentiments of the Priest of Naples. Mitov points again to the volatility of science and the recognition that hypotheses don’t always come to definitive conclusions.

As Louis Pasteur says, “In science, chance favors the prepared mind”. Accidents may end in discovery, invention may precede explanation, and the mysteries of soft matter will always exist.  Reading Michel Mitov’s Sensitive Matter will take you steps closer to understanding chance by opening your mind to the possibilities of soft matter in the everyday world.

Amanda Mead is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is an active contributor to Sixty Inches from Center, an online archive of the Chicago art scene. She graduated from Beloit College with a joint degree in Creative Writing and Art History.

Sensitive Matter: Foams, Gels, Liquid Crystals, and Other Miracles by Michel Mitov
Translated by Giselle Weiss
Harvard University Press, 2012
Price: $22.95
Pages: 208
ISBN: 9780674064560

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