Fundamentals of Soft Matter Science,

Linda S.
Hirst
,
CRC Press
, 2013. $79.95 (246 pp.). ISBN 978-1-4398-2775-8

Soft matter is a class of materials with mechanical properties that lie between those of elastic solids and viscous liquids. We encounter soft matter every day in the form of foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, detergents, and digital displays. In fact, the tissues in our own bodies are biological soft materials. Soft materials are built from subunits larger than single molecules, and their overall structure and dynamics are governed by the interplay of thermal energy and the weak interactions of those subunits. The result is an extremely rich and fascinating phase behavior.

However, despite both the scientific interest in its varied behaviors and its technological importance, soft matter has been the subject of very few introductory textbooks. And fewer still cover the class’s full range of materials, the relevant concepts and theoretical background, or the experimental techniques used to study them.

Linda Hirst’s Fundamentals of Soft Matter Science is a welcome addition to that small list. The text aims at providing a comprehensive introduction to the science of soft materials. It is, as the author puts it, “designed for beginners to the field with a basic scientific background.” The book is organized in five main chapters, each dedicated to a different class of soft matter: liquid crystals, surfactants, polymers, colloidal materials, and soft biomaterials.

It makes sense to organize an introductory text by focusing on those familiar material types. However, the book’s organization underemphasizes the overarching principles that govern their behavior. Moreover, the book situates experimental techniques within subsections of the main chapters and thus associates them with specific categories of soft matter. In fact, all the techniques covered are used for many different types of soft matter, and I would have preferred that the techniques be linked to relevant physical mechanisms rather than to material types. Also, many of the experimental techniques are described too briefly for the reader to understand the underlying physical principles or interpret typical experimental results.

I recognize that the author had to make difficult choices in crafting an introductory text for such a highly multidisciplinary, diverse, and rich field of study. One dilemma she faced was to balance breadth and depth. On the one hand, a broad treatment would convey the field’s richness and why it is a topic of fascination for researchers. On the other hand, it is important to go beyond superficiality and to convey an understanding of the underlying physical principles. Fundamentals of Soft Matter Science certainly succeeds in giving a broad overview and conveying the fascination of the field.

In my opinion, though, the book would have profited from a more detailed treatment of selected topics such as the experimental techniques, or of concepts such as phase separation or viscoelasticity. Fortunately, each chapter contains a sensible list of references that the reader can use to find more detailed information on the different topics.

Fundamentals of Soft Matter Science is not meant to be a reference book, but rather to provide a basic introduction to the field. I would expect it to be used in introductory undergraduate courses, but not as a main textbook in courses at the graduate or advanced undergraduate levels. The text should thus prove its worth to students new to soft-matter science and may also be useful more broadly to readers interested in obtaining a first overview of the field.

Hans Wyss studies soft and meso-structured materials as an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering and materials technology at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and as a researcher in the university’s Institute for Complex Molecular Systems.