This post is a summary of my thoughts from Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World.

This book was on the most recent Andreesen Horowitz “Books We’re Reading” list. It’s a short book and was available through my library, so I picked it up without much thought.

The book is a fun overview of material sciences. It picks 10 materials, then spends a chapter on each. Each material is analyzed at the atomic level to show why it has certain properties. Then its societal impacts and uses are discussed.

I have taken many science courses, but never one that focused on material science. I enjoyed the book because it forced me to think from a new perspective. It was also interesting to see how material science is rooted in both physics and chemistry.

Some materials were more interesting than others. Here are some of my favorites:

I’ve never thought about how concrete is actually artificial rock. It’s fascinating to think about how humans have figured out how to take mountains, melt them down, and build our own mountains (buildings) as we see fit. Steel reinforced concrete displays properties unlike anything found in nature, making it the best building material available. Ironically, our culture considers it ugly. Despite its use in everything, we have to cover it with steel or glass.

I had heard about aerogel a week ago, and I would describe it as real science fiction. It’s a gel where the liquid has been replaced with gas. The result is a lattice of material with walls less than a micrometer wide. At 99.8% air, it’s the lightest solid on earth, and the millions of air cavities make it the best insulator in the world. NASA uses it on space equipment, and now outdoor fabrics are using it.

Silica aerogel appears blue for the same reasons as the sky.

Porcelain is the most durable ceramic and it is very difficult to stain, which is what makes it so common today. Many cultures developed pottery, but the Chinese discovered and perfected the art of porcelain. They beat the Europeans to it by over one thousand years - including over 400 years when it was actively traded!

Here are a few other excerpts I highlighted:

“The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.”

“Although concrete reacts with water to harden to a reasonable strength within twenty-four hours, the process by which this artificial rock develops its internal architecture and so its full strength takes years.”

“Enter aerogel. Because it is a foam, it has within it the equivalent of a billion billion layers of glass and air between one side of the material and the other.”

“Much of what makes us older is not the age of our cells but the deterioration of the systems that generate them.”