I was shortlisted for the IOP Physics Communicator award. It seems a bit of luck on my part, really the physics is very exciting and I’m just the messenger, but who’s going to turn down a chance to show off at one of the fanciest addresses in town? The other nominees were phenomenal: a particle physicist by day and stand-up comedian by night, Francesca’s using data from the LHC to look at sub-atomic particles. That’s pretty cool. That’s smaller than nano. That’s like, super-nano. Fran’s an amazing performer and advocate for women in science AND she can swear in front of a room full of teachers AND she can solve a Lagrangian equation. Oxford’s not short of excellence: astrophysicist Rebecca Smethurst was the audience winner at UK’s FameLab. She’s been to Hawaii and the Canary Islands to use incredible telescopes to hunt for objects that are light years away AND she’s met Brian Cox. Rebecca is working with the BBC to combine the public’s star gazing photography into a real image she can use for her PhD with the Galaxy Zoo. Imagine that author list. Finally, but not finally, because she’s travelled the furthest and is the most cool and composed throughout, is Becky Douglas. Rebecca is into gravitational waves and is on a mission to find the materials to build something that can detect him. She’s super on point about the need for good, well-targeted science communication, and doesn’t only want the ardent enthusiasts to find out. Rebecca’s targeting prisons, knitting groups and artistic Scots.
There were four stars to this show: Rebecca, Rebecca, Francesca and Prof. Mark Miodownik. Mark is a material scientist and the lead of the UCL Institute of Making. He’s a cool looking guy too: no white coat, no stuff suit, just a trendy Liberty/ Paul Smith shirt and cool-looking glasses. He’s been on the BBC, he was a researcher in america and he’s done a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. The Institute of Making sounds like the Imperial Design School, only it’s been going a bit longer and is in Bloomsbury not SW7. They have an open-access materials library and brand themselves as a ‘cross-disciplinary’ research club. Just in case, you know, you’re looking for one of those. The Library welcomes in members of the public. They give students (from UG up!) the space to own their studies in material science, so when the men, women and child ask questions, they’re the experts. They set up bright young minds and inspirational makers with industry and set them challenges for future design. There’s a great review of the Institute on the UCL website: “there are really nice natural interactions between staff and students – it’s not the first thing you ask another member. Everyone is equal, academic status is just not that relevant to making.” Daniel Black, BSc Geography.
Prof. M tailored his talk to his academic audience. He spoke about materials for the 21st century. Only, we already have lots. We’ve been making materials longer than we’ve formally been called scientists. Mark starts with an image of a typical London street and begins to highlight all the materials we’ve made to go inside it: the tarmac, the concrete, the windows- he makes us feel pretty far from the natural world. We’re a species obsessed with the materials we create, think ‘stone age’, ‘bronze age’, ‘iron age’. ‘Material Science’ is a subject that systematically describes their properties.
It’s all a matter of scale: If we start at the very big and shrink to the microscopically small, the building blocks (or ‘Lego’) of all human life are cells. Life slides up the material scale from the molecular to the mountain. It’s not a one-way street- trees can turn individual genes on and off.
The IoM don’t just exist to investigate the materials of the present day and do impressive science shows, they are trying to develop the materials of the future. They’re creating multi-scale models that can economically power the future.
Prof M. sees a few big challenges (or at least, he’s telling us about a few). We’ll have to re-address the way we think about energy– add-ons won’t do: solar panels will have to be incorporate into building materials themselves. We’ll have to learn how to translate our carbon-based lab skills into bigger, better and lighter machines. (I’m thinking, “I like this guy. I work with organic solar cells and I’m REALLY into my carbon fibre bike. Maybe there will be space for Jess in the future world). Cities (by far the most economical places to live) will have to be re-thought. He had some great graphics made by Mike Ashby @ Granta Design. Grant have some great, free, online resources. There are more dangerous/ rare elements in a light bulb than you’d care to consider, and iPhones contain half of the periodic table. We get bored of our phones (I’m a bit bored of mine, my iPad’s a bit slow and I really want a graphics tablet, so you know, I can draw like I do in real life but on a screen) and our light bulbs fade, so we throw them away. Instead we need to shift to material systems that go round in loops. Where we don’t just recycle because we fear the wrath of the Camden bin men or our neighbour’s judgement, but because it’s routine. Japan don’t make plastic. Everything they use they ship-in. As a result you just don’t get plastic bags, let alone pay 5 p for them. Ecological + economical. (I bet they have some pretty awesome canvas bags there too). We’ll start using more self-healing materials. Cracks heal in Jonkers’ self-healing concrete when bacteria that breed inside the cracks come into contact with water and excrete limestone.
The next big issue of the future (in the eyes of our materials man) is health. At the Wake Forest Institute their 3D printing organs: only it doesn’t go so well, because cells don’t like to be squeezed through tubes and get pretty frustrated when you try do reproduce them yourself (that’s basically their one job). When you build them some scaffolding, you can let cells do the magic- Prof. Alexander Seifalian has replaced throats and is starting to grow hearts and livers with nano materials.
We’re a society driven by discovery and efficiency– equivalent to the computation chemists designing exciting polymers for solar panels, scientists are trying to piece together the elements of human existence with the human genome project (and Obama gave them $ 1 billion! so let’s hope it’s not a Kid’s Company type affair).
Prof. Mark M’s creating the forum and the language for the designers of the future to interact. His favourite projects start with questions from the public at exhibitions and open days- how can him and his team of researchers, designers, creators, architects, doctors, lawyers, innovators and scientists help that. The IoM assemble teams and give them the permission to open their imagination.
There has never been a more exciting time to be a scientist.