Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Book Review: "Soft Matter" by Roberto Piazza

Soft Matter: The stuff that dreams are made of
By Roberto Piazza
Springer (April 11, 2011)

Some months ago I had a conversation about nematic films. Or was trying to have. Unfortunately I didn't have the faintest clue what this conversation was about. Neither, to my shame, did I understand much of the papers on the subject. Then I came across a review of Roberto Piazza's book on "Soft Matter" and I thought it sounds like just what I need to learn some new vocabulary.

Roberto Piazza is professor for Condensed Matter Physics at the Politecnico di Milano, and his book isn't your typical popular science book. It is instead a funny mixture of popular science book and what you might find in a textbook introduction, minus the technical details. In some regards this mixture works quite well. For example, Piazza is not afraid to introduce terminology and even uses an equation here and there. In other regards however, this mixture does not work well. The book does introduce far too much terminology in a quite breathless pace. It's a case in which less would have been more.

The book covers a lot of terrain: Colloids, aerosols, polymers, liquid crystals, glasses and gels, and in the last chapter amino acids, proteins, and the basic functions of cells. The concepts are first briefly introduced and then in later chapters there are examples and more details. In principle this is a good structure. Unfortunately, the author has a tendency to pack the pages with too much information, information that isn't always conductive to the flow of the text, and doesn't spend enough time on clarifying the information he wants to get across, or that I believe he might have wanted to get across.

The text is accompanied by several color figures, which are in most cases helpful, but there could have been more, especially to show molecular structures that are often explained in words. The book comes with a glossary that is very useful. It does however not come with references or suggestions for further reading, so if the reader wants to know more about a topic, they are left on their own.

In summary, the book is a useful introduction to soft matter, but it isn't exactly a captivating read. Especially in the last chapter, where Piazza goes on about proteins and their functions - while constantly reminding the reader that he's not a biologist - I had to resist the temptation of skipping some pages. Not because the topic is uninteresting, but because the presentation is unstructured and wasteful on words, and thus wasteful on the reader's time.

That having been said, lack of structure and too many words is just the type of criticism you'd expect from a German about an Italian, so take that with a grain of salt ;o) And, yes, now I know what nematic films are. I'd give this book three out of five stars.