The "ancient Chinese, though so advanced in many other technologies, disdained glass, preferring paper windows," notes Mark Miodownik in Stuff Matters, as reviewed by Peter Pesic in The Wall Street Journal (6/7/14). Consequently, they had no telescopes, and "without a telescope you cannot make the observations that underpin the modern understanding of the universe; without a microscope, there was no possibility of observing cells or bacteria nor studying systematically ‘the microscopic world’ … essential to the development of medicine and engineering."
The Romans, on the other hand, "loved glass and brought it into everyday use." The Roman Empire, meanwhile, "was built on concrete, including what is still the largest free-standing concrete dome in their Pantheon … After the Romans, the secret of making concrete was lost for a millennium, perhaps because it involves a subtle mixture of materials; the Romans had been lucky enough to discover a kind of natural cement (the crucial binding agent in concrete) in volcanic sands outside Naples."
Today, "over half of all construction is concrete, often reinforced with steel, to which concrete miraculously bonds so that it responds in concert to stress and temperature, producing a hybrid material far stronger than concrete alone." Mark explores the physical properties of these and other materials, including "chocolate, carbon, paper and cellulose." He also introduces readers "to silica aerogels, exquisitely light yet solid materials" that scatter light like the sky, making it possible to "hold the blue sky in your hand." (image)