By Penny Carmichael, on 14 October 2013
– Article by Jack Humphrey
Kicking off the CPS’s 138th year was Professor Mark Miodownik, occasional TV star and the director of UCL’s new Institute of Making. His talk was titled “Stuff Matters” and introduced us to the science of materials. Materials are the products of human ingenuity and creativity and define who we are. Materials science seeks to understand how different materials work at a microscopic level and reconcile this with their macroscopic properties.
The development of glass was the chosen example. First used by the Egyptians for jewellery then by the Chinese as a pottery glaze, glass really took off in the west with the invention of glass-blowing. Cups could now be transparent and windows were no longer drafty. The creation of transparent test-tubes allowed alchemists to transform into chemists. Glass grinding created the lens, heralding the sciences of optics, astronomy and microbiology. The refinement of glass pouring (with the use of molten tin) windows could be cast into any size and the urban landscape became taller and shinier. The discovery that long fibers of glass could carry a beam of light has led to modern ‘superfast’ broadband. The discovery that glass fibers mixed with resin create an extremely strong yet lightweight material allowed Spielberg to make Jaws so terrifying. The point the Professor raised was most materials came about before proper scientific understanding.
The UCL Institute of Making aims to integrate the scientific study of materials with architects, artists and designers to get a more rounded understanding, with very curious consequences. One project investigated the taste of metals. Using identically sized and shaped spoons coated with different metals, the group found a correlation between electrode potential and the strength of “metallic” taste. Electropositive gold and silver taste quite mild whereas the more negative Zinc and Copper have a more tangy taste with Copper particularly unpleasant. A follow up experiment that involving celebrity chefs trying to create a flavour combination to match the taste of the spoons ended inconclusively as nothing could mask the taste of some of the more unpleasant metals.
Current projects focus on technology to assist the elderly and disabled. An organic LED coating with a piezoelectric underlayer connects touch with a visual signal. Wearable assisstive materials are clothes that will learn your gait so it can be enhanced or corrected. The Institute offers free membership to anyone affiliated with UCL.