George Pendle wrote the highly-recommended Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, the biography of rocket pioneer Jack Parsons (whom I profiled in MAKE, Volume 13). In Saturday’s Financial Times, George writes about the Materials Library at King’s College, London.
Deep in the bowels of a brutalist concrete building on the Strand, long shelves are packed – crammed, really – with some of the world’s strangest substances, from the past, present and sometimes, it seems, the future. Take Aerogel: the world’s lightest solid consists of 99.8 per cent air and looks like a vague, hazy mass. And yet despite its insubstantial nature, it is remarkably strong; and because of its ability to nullify convection, conduction and radiation, it also happens to be the best insulator in the world. Sitting next to the Aerogel is its thermal opposite, a piece of aluminium nitride, which is such an effective conductor of heat that if you grasp a blunt wafer of it in your hand, the warmth of your body alone allows it to cut through ice. Nearby are panes of glass that clean themselves, metal that remembers the last shape it was twisted into, and a thin tube of Tin Stick which, when bent, emits a sound like a human cry. There’s a tub of totally inert fluorocarbon liquid into which any electronic device can be placed and continue to function. The same liquid has been used to replace the blood in lab rats, which also, oddly enough, continue to function.