Physics

Mark Miodownik: ‘Liquids are not to be trusted’ | Science


Materials scientist Mark Miodownik’s first book, Stuff Matters, won the 2014 Royal Society book prize. His second, Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, has been shortlisted for the 2018 award. He has presented science programmes for the BBC, the most recent of which was the Radio 4 series Plastic Fantastic. He also delivered the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 2010 and was appointed an MBE in the 2018 New Year honours list.

You say “liquids are the alter ego of dependable solid stuff”. Did that make them a natural topic for the sequel to your previous book, Stuff Matters?
I am doing a project about self-healing roads and I had to deal with tar. Previously I thought it was a solid. And then I realised that it’s a liquid behaving like a solid. And that opened the door to: “What are liquids anyway?”

It’s an interesting question. After all, milk is an emulsion, which is a pretty complex system, and in one experiment it took years for a funnel of pitch to drip.
That is what I discovered in writing the book. There is no hard and fast definition of liquids. Previously you may have thought “solids, liquids, gas, everyone knows these are the pillars of science”. That’s absolute rubbish. All states of matter diffuse into each other. It is just a way in your head to archetype certain things so you know what to expect from them. You put a solid somewhere, it stays there, it is not going to walk off. You put a liquid there, it is very likely to disappear, it might go into the gas form, it might go and seep underneath the thing, it might corrode it. That is the other thing I realised writing Liquid: that liquids are kind of a naughty form of matter. They are not to be trusted.

Liquids have astonished us historically, from non-Newtonian fluids like ketchup, which thins when shaken, to the magnetic properties of liquid oxygen. Are we still being amazed?
I can see no end to it. There is an infinite range of liquids. There are more and more because what we think of as a liquid can have solid particles in it, it can have other liquids in it, it can be an emulsion, liquid crystals. There are just so many different ways of arranging matter at all the different scales. I talk about liquid computers in the book – the idea that computing in the future might be by liquids because of the immense [information] storage capacity of some molecular species.

There has been a lot of excitement about searching for liquid water on other planets and bodies. Why is it so important?
It turns out water has this incredible property – it is a universal solvent. This is because of the polarity of the H2O molecule, which means that charges across the molecule are not evenly distributed, so if you try to dissolve minerals composed of atoms or molecules with an electric charge, such as salt, they easily dissolve in it.

But water also has the ability to dissolve certain carbon-based materials in it – those that are also polar such as simple carbohydrates and proteins. The ability to dissolve both minerals and carbon molecules is unusual, and makes water a universal solvent. Because they are inside liquid water, dissolved molecules are all able to move around, meet each other, combine with each other, and perhaps spark life as it has on Earth.

Blue Planet and media coverage have raised the problem of plastics. What’s the answer?
We have got to wean ourselves off oil. The answer is not to get rid of plastics – plastics are so important to our lives: they bring water into our homes, they bring electricity into our homes, they make our electronics work, they reduce food waste by huge proportions.

What is hard is not taking cow poo or sewage or many other organic sources and turning them into plastics – we can do that. What we find really hard, it turns out, is to do the reverse, is to turn our waste plastics back into plastic via the liquid state, and the reason that is so hard is that once we have a plastic material, whether it is a polypropylene, polyethylene or a laminate film keeping your tomatoes safe, we have engineered quite a lot of complexity into it.

If you mix them together, which is what happens at the moment, and melt them, you lose all that complexity. You lose the value and that thing you have left over has no value in the current system so no one wants to take it. We haven’t priced in the cost of them polluting the world.

Was graphene over-hyped?
The idea that one material is going to somehow be the answer to all of our problems and dreams is obviously not true. The problem is that we tend to fixate that there is going to be one answer instead of saying there are probably 20 interesting materials being developed in this country, some for solar cells like perovskite, others for batteries. Why is graphene being singled out as the one with the most potential? That is the only thing I would question.

If we think graphene is going to be more important than steel then we are almost certainly deluded. Why aren’t we spending more time thinking about the health of the steel industry? Not having a steel industry is like not having a bread industry. If we couldn’t bake bread in this country, people would be outraged. A steel industry is one of the building blocks of society. That is frustrating for me.

What we need is a sustainable way to recycle steel and make a recycling steel industry that is as impressive as the 19th-century smelting industry was. And if the UK leads on that, then we will be a world-class steel power again.

You solve a few linguistic conundrums too…
Blind drunk comes from the fact that if you make your own alcohol like hooch or poteen, by distilling something like fermented potatoes, the first volatile that comes off is methanol.

Now, methanol is incredibly toxic and poisoning. I know ethanol – the alcohol in wine and other drinks – is bad, but methanol will essentially attack all your systems and turn you blind. So the people who were blind drunk were the ones who were brewing hooch in ignorance, drinking it all and going blind.

How should we change how people interact with their materials?
Plastic is a good example of one where if you don’t understand how something is made, you don’t have a way of appreciating it and therefore understanding it. Plastics come from some synthetic place that consumers have never understood. They come into their lives very briefly in the form of some packaging that they rip off quickly, and then it goes somewhere magically – except that they have just realised it doesn’t actually go anywhere magical. It goes into the ocean or something.

How do we get around this problem?
We need to bring materials into our lives. People need to understand how things are made more; that will make them appreciate and enjoy the world more. Life isn’t just about going to work or fiddling with your phone. People wonder why their life isn’t satisfying and the answer is they are aren’t making something.

Liquid by Mark Miodownik is published by Viking on 6 September (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99



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