May 30, 2014


Is collecting "stuff" actually good for you? Credit: Christina B Castro / Flickr Creative Commons


We talk a lot about innovation as being tied in with ideas - someone comes up with a really cool ad campaign or a new app.

But if you think about how our ancestors got here - fighting their way through the stone, bronze, and iron ages - we’ve always been defined by our stuff. 

"If you look back at civilization, what distinguishes us from monkeys or other animals, is our ability not so much to have language, because many animals have language," argues 

Mark Miodownik, author of 'Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World.'

"And not so much to build things, because ants and termites build things and birds build nests. But actually to transform some materials into other materials. That’s what humans are – we create new materials."

It's important, he says, to remember the building blocks of everything that created our modern world — from the plastic in our soda tops to metals that make our buildings.

"Without steel our modern world really wouldn't be what it is at all," adds Miodownik. He has a very personal connection to that particular metal, and it played a huge part in why he became a materials scientist in the first place.

"I got stabbed on the underground in London," Miodownik remembers.

"Many people get stabbed and don't live to tell the tale; I did. But I came face to face with the weapon — this piece of steel. It was the first time I'd really thought about the fact that you could have something that sharp that could kill someone. Nothing really prepared me for being part of a stabbing. Once you see a piece of steel and you realize how actually that's so cheap and everyone can have one, [it's] 'how did we do that?'"

Miowdownik adds that when it comes to materials we have to take the good with the bad — with shelter comes weapons, with wealth comes lots and lots of trash.

But for good or bad, materials underlie the growth of human civilization, and those that are able to manipulate and invent are ultimately the most successful.

"If you have a thirst for innovation, you have power, you have wealth," he says.  

Hear more from Mark Miodownik by clicking above.

Green, Mark Miodownik, behavior science

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