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Stuff Matters: You’ll Never Look At A Pencil, Teacup, Or Razor Blade The Same Way

Stuff Matters: You'll Never Look At A Pencil, Teacup, Or Razor Blade The Same Way by Bill Gates, Gates Notes

People have all kinds of obsessions-silly, serious, and everything in between. The sheer diversity of these fascinations, from playing bridge (my personal obsession) to scanning the skies for new planets, is one of the most beautiful things about humanity. And yet one person’s obsession doesn’t necessarily make for interesting reading for those of us who have never been bitten by that same bug.

Mark Miodownik’s personal and professional obsession, as he explains in his book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, is basic materials we often take for granted such as paper, glass, concrete, and steel—as well as new super-materials that will change our world in the decades ahead. I’m pleased to report that he is a witty, smart writer who has a great talent for imparting his love of this subject. As a result, Stuff Matters is a fun, accessible read.

My favorite writer, the historian Vaclav Smil, also wrote a wonderful book on materials, but it’s completely different from Miodownik’s. Smil is a facts-and-numbers guy; he doesn’t bring any romance to his topic. Miodownik is the polar opposite. He’s heavy on romance and very light on numbers.

Miodownik, an Oxford-trained materials scientist who has worked in some of the most advanced labs in the world, discovered his obsession with materials in a bizarre way. When he was in high school in the 1980s, he was the victim of a random attack on a London Tube train. In his telling, instead of freaking out about the five-inch slash wound in his back, he fixated on the elegance of the attacker’s steel razor blade. “This tiny piece of steel, not much bigger than a postage stamp, had cut through five layers of my clothes, and then through the epidermis and dermis of my skin in one slash without any problem at all,” he writes. “It was the birth of my obsession with materials.”

Most of us have the luxury of not thinking much...