Miodownik, director of the Institute of Making at the University College London, examines 10 everyday substances in Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, his introduction to the discipline of materials science.

How is materials science distinct from chemistry, physics, and engineering?

Although physics does atoms well, understanding how atoms work doesn’t tell you much about steel, plastics, or even a pencil. The same goes for chemistry, which does nail molecules, but when things are more complicated than that, it falls down. Materials science tries to synthesize physics, chemistry, and biology into a coherent whole: a body of knowledge capable of explaining the complexities of the material world. It’s a fundamentally creative science rather than a reductionist one. Engineering is the application of materials science to create the human realm.

Is there a typical materials science job?

Not really. Materials are everywhere: everything is made of something. All those things are getting more sophisticated and require materials experts. Pick any object in front of you now—a computer, a sweater, a magazine, a train, a gold ring, a stick of glue—materials science underpins them all. But if I have a wish, it is that more smart materials scientists will get interested in unmaking things: recycling. It’s just embarrassing for the professional that most of our stuff ends up in a hole in the ground. We need to sort it out.

What are some difficulties that you foresee materials science solving in the next decade or two?

Global warming is the biggest problem we face. Cheap sources of energy that are environmentally sustainable are going to be key. I’d bet that solar energy will deliver in the next 10 to 20 years. It’s a materials science problem. The other big driver is health. We all want to live longer and healthier lives and that is going to require being able to engineer replacement parts for the human body such as knees, hips, livers, kidneys, and hearts.

What is the function of the Institute of Making? Are there similar institutions in the U.S.?

The Institute of Making is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to diamonds, socks to cities. We built it, and there is nowhere quite like it in the world. Next to chocolate it is my favorite thing.

What are some materials not in your book that you’d love to examine for the general public?

I picked materials that are important to all of us, but there are clear omissions such as textiles and ice. Ice will be a defining material of the 21st century, both in terms of its melting being the visible sign of global warming, but also because we will need cool drinks all the more. Similarly the clothes we wear are so important to us and have so many labels attached to them, but how they work and where they come from is not often discussed. I would love to do a second edition of Stuff Matters!