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The Collector of Everything

British scientist Mark Miodownik speaks for the stuff we all take for granted.

One word: Plastics. Some others: Paper. Steel. Chocolate. Actually, Mark Miodownik could go on all day about such things. In his book, Stuff Matters , the University College London professor breaks down the substance of our modern world and invites us to share in his fascination. His relationship with materials is an unusual one: As a boy, he was stabbed by a stranger with a straight razor and marveled at the way it sliced through his leather jacket. Much of what amazes him today, including spectacular materials like aerogel and uranium glass, ends up in his grand hobbyist's hub: the materials library at the Institute of Making in London, where he is the director.

MARK MIODOWNIKPROFESSION: Materials scientist, engineer, sensoaesthete.CLAIM TO FAME: Inspiring a fresh look at what things are made of.Photo Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

PROFESSION: Materials scientist, engineer, sensoaesthete.
CLAIM TO FAME: Inspiring a fresh look at what things are made of.
(Photo Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The study of materials, you write, is "no less human" than art or literature. Why?

There's a cultural norm that the arts and literature are an expression of human values, and somehow engineering and science are not. We are engineers: The engineering mindset got people out of the savannah and the rain-drenched jungles to start making tools and clothes, creating shelter, cooking food, and freeing up time to do other things. Understanding how different things work is science. It's so weird to me that it now feels somehow exterior to us.

Why do you think that is?

The scientific method tries to get at truths about the world in a dispassionate way and rejects subjective knowledge. Architects, designers, and artists aren't afraid to say that knowledge doesn't have to be objective to be important. I think scientists could do with a bit of that.

What is your mission? What do you think people are missing?

I want to encourage people to reacquaint themselves with what the world is made of. Imagine you become deaf, and you don't hear any of the sounds around you, none of the clues of action. There's a causality that's missing from your model of the world. When you look at the objects around you and have no idea how they are made or where the stuff comes from, or even what it is, you don't understand quite a lot of how the world works.

Can you think of an example?

How often do you use a ballpoint pen? Probably every day. This is something that cost you maybe 10 cents. Look at how tiny this spherical ball is. It's like a miracle to make something that perfect, that reliable. It's a very avant-garde piece of engineering; it's beautiful, and yet it's completely lost on people.

Why do you think you became so fascinated with this stuff?

My dad is a metallurgist, but he isn't that interested in the sociocultural, sensual side of materials. When I look at my family, I struggle to find where I came from. It's a love of stuff that is actually in a lot of people. If I'd been a chef, maybe it would come out in my cooking.

You describe materials in very human terms.

I'm the youngest of four brothers, and I grew up at a time when violence within the school and the home was normal—you were constantly being hit by people. I felt, maybe, the sense of injustice of that. I somehow felt it was akin to my toys being broken. Everything gets smashed when you're a kid. I felt that we should stick together, me and the stuff.

How are our identities reflected by our built world?

Bathrooms are really indicative. People are naked in there; we exist as raw animals. What, then, makes you comfortable? We choose hard materials. It's bizarre: Why reflect back to yourself the sense of being in a place where you are vulnerable? The only thing I can come up with is that people, above all things, want to feel clean in the bathroom. So it needs to be shiny, but stainless steel and metal feel too institutional.

People once liked concrete, you note, but no longer. Why?

Concrete became a poster boy of modernism, and modernism is not thought to have brought about a better world. Longer life spans, lower mortality rates, lower child death rates—all these things are improvements. But I think there is a kind of unease about the fact that the things people wanted in the '50s somehow didn't bring happiness. Modernism, and therefore concrete, have been tainted by that unease. Concrete is not a very subtle material; it's quite bold. Maybe we've lost the boldness that took us to the moon, and we don't want to be reminded of it by concrete.

How will new developments change the way we live?

The generation of energy through solar cells is going to change quite a bit. Buildings will be coated with material, like paint, that can convert sunlight to electricity. Concrete and other materials will become self-healing. Bacteria live inside this concrete. When a crack forms, they are exposed to humidity, and they proliferate and excrete calcite. In the future, I think, cities will become more like forests. Things will look after themselves.