Miracle materials

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This is me, Bins. The book I’ve been reading is all about manmade things. Plastic, paper, steel, even chocolate. Did you know how sophisticated chocolate is? Wah. But when I show STUFF MATTERS by Mark Miodownik to The Lady, she turns her nose up. “I refuse to get excited about industrial products,” she says.

I tell her she’s crazy. “We live in an age of miracles,” I say. “You like to read rubbish-books about boys who can fly on broomsticks? This book is about real magic. How diamonds can be turned into airplanes — well, okay, not exactly, but close enough for me — sand into computer chips, wood into books. The history of civilisation is written in the language of raw materials!” She shrugs. “Okay, I’m grateful to have access to toughened glass and versatile paper but guess what? We also have global warming and international terrorism.”

Don’t you hate it when people talk like this? “You realise this is a cultural bias, yes?” She frowns at me. “It’s because the inventions discussed in this book were mostly created in Europe and also — paper and fine porcelain — in China. Nothing from India.” She throws a cushion at me. “You know I don’t think like that!” she snarls. “Then it makes no sense,” I say. “It’s really fascinating. He writes in a very easy style, so that even a 10-year- old can understand —” She throws another cushion at me. “I am NOT a child! Maybe that’s why I’m not interested?” This is a dig at me. I ignore it. I am not childish, after all.

“Do you know why glass is transparent?” I ask. “Or how concrete is made? Or that aerogel was invented in the 1930s but only appreciated many years later, towards the end of the century?” She shrugs and asks, “What’s aerogel?” I smile. Now she’s hooked. “It’s a super-light material. Made by removing the liquid from a jelly, leaving only the framework that once held the liquid.” She is still looking unconvinced. “It was used for trapping stardust from the tail of a comet,” I say. “So that we can see the composition of fine particles before they fall to the earth and get roasted on their way down.”

She smiles. “Okay that’s pretty cool. What about glass then? Why is it transparent?” “Well,” I say, feeling a bit uncomfortable, “it’s ... it’s to do with the arrangement of atoms. In glass, they are loose enough that light passes through. In other materials, like metal for instance, atoms are arranged in such a way that the light is absorbed at the surface.” She grins. “You’re not so sure?” “I only read it once!” I exclaim. “It’s almost as if the real question is why light doesn’t pass through EVERYTHING.” She picks up the book. “So what about diamonds? How are they being made into aircraft?”

“Diamonds are a form of carbon,” I say, “and scientists have found a way of re-arranging carbon atoms to make a super-strong material called graphene.” I get up. “There. I’ve said enough. If you want to know more, just read the book!” She doesn’t answer: too busy reading.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on April 01, 2016

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