I'm an avid and very mediocre surfer at the breaks near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. In January and February, when the waves are biggest, the water is so cold that a wipeout means surfacing with an ice cream headache. And yet I can stay out there for hours, thanks entirely to the material known as neoprene. It's a synthetic polymer, and the gas bubbles inside make it an excellent thermal insulator. Before neoprene, surfers wore wool sweaters into the water. Imagine. From neoprene to antibacterial surface coatings to the materials that let your car crumple around you in an accident, materials science cushions us all against the rigors of the world.