Pressure
Properties of Matter

Stories from physics: properties of matter

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

Download the full booklet and explore more stories from physics.

Introduction

This is the fifth booklet in our series. Once again, the stories bring to life the people behind the development of physics illustrating the full range of their humanity: their imagination, ingenuity and determination but also their fallibility and frailty.

We go back to the philosophers and engineers who thought about the actual materials in our material world. We meet ordinary people, scientists and engineers. Amongst them are some of the great polymaths whose names will be forever associated with apparently humdrum school-level laws but whose lives were complicated, colourful and creative like the rest of us.

Matter is the route into big questions of physics: what is the world made of and how do those constituents behave? Understanding the properties of matter is an excellent example of how the answers to those questions can be applied – through engineering projects - to improve lives.

Richard has done an amazing job of collecting these stories and I am very pleased that the IOP is able to help him to share them.

Charles Tracy, IOP Head of Education

Message from the author

Every time we enter a building or travel in a vehicle, our comfort and safety are dependent on the expertise of material scientists. But when I first studied the properties of matter, I found the topic hard to engage with. It seemed then to lack the exciting abstraction of other areas of physics. When I came to teach it to secondary students, I therefore took particular trouble to find stories that made the topic come alive and some of them are collected in this booklet.

There are stories describing the amazing materials that exist in the natural world: the softness of frogs’ tongues, the elasticity of kangaroos and the clever evolutionary design that stops spiders spinning as they descend on threads. You can decide for yourself whether cats are technically fluids.

I also found stories of ingenious inventions, for example Starlite, the wonder material capable of resisting intense heat invented by a hairdresser from Hartlepool. You will read about how an accident with a light bulb saved $10 million and discover the properties of stretchy seaweed hydrogels.

Some of the stories are drawn from the history of science. Sophie Germain’s parents had to force the young scientist to stop studying at night, Robert Hooke got an ant drunk and a monk used the volume of his nose to estimate the number of atoms in a piece of incense.

I am grateful to the Institute of Physics for making this collection of the stories a reality. In particular, I want to thank Caroline Davis for managing the project and editing the booklets and to Stuart Redfern for his wonderful illustrations. So, let me tell you some stories from physics…

Richard Brock, lecturer in science education at Kings' College London@RBrockPhysics

Up next

Materials

Properties of Matter

The phenomenal Young

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

Thomas Young was born in 1773. He is reported to have begun reading at the age of two and to have read the bible twice by the time he was four years old. He had a prodigious talent for languages and an anecdote relates that as a boy he was set the task of copying a sentence out of a book to test his writing skills. As his response took some time, his challenger investigated and found that Young had written the sentence out in four or five (some sources claim it was as many as 14) languages.

Because of his talents, Young was given the nickname ‘phenomenon Young’ at Cambridge and he has been described as the last man who knew everything. On leaving university, he trained and practised as a physician but his interests switched to physics. A contemporary surgeon described traits that explained why Young failed to thrive in a medical career, but helped him become an excellent scientist:

[Young] was not a popular physician. He wanted that confidence or assurance which is so necessary to the successful exercise of his profession. He was perhaps too deeply informed, and therefore too sensible of the difficulty of arriving at true knowledge in the profession of medicine, hastily to form a judgment; and his great love of and adherence to truth made him often hesitate where others felt no difficulty whatever in the expression of their opinion.

Too learned 
Despite his scientific genius, Young struggled to describe his ideas clearly. He stated the definition of his eponymous modulus as:

The modulus of the elasticity of any substance is a column of the same substance, capable of producing a pressure on its base which is to the weight causing a certain degree of compression, as the length of the substance is to the diminution of its length.

Unsurprisingly, when the idea of the Young’s modulus was explained to the Admiralty, a clerk replied: “Though science is much respected by their Lordships and your paper is much esteemed, it is too learned ... in short it is not understood.” Young’s biographer observed that Young’s research on fluids was: “…amongst the most original and important he made to physical science; but being conducted without the aid of figures or symbolical reasoning, are extremely obscure.”

As well as lacking clarity, Young’s work was pre-empted by Giordano Riccati who worked on the elastic modulus of brass and steel a quarter of a century before Young. The familiar, and more comprehensible, definition of Young’s modulus as the ratio of stress to strain was not given by Young, but published by Claude-Louis Navier, a French engineer and physicist, three years before Young’s death.

At the age of 29, Young was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution. Though considered a prodigy, he nevertheless encountered some stiff scientific competition. At the Institution, Young met Humphry Davy who had just been appointed Professor of Chemistry at the age of 24. His rival’s more engaging style attracted larger audiences, according to a contemporary, a Dr Paris, who wrote that Young “adopted too severe and didactic a style”.

Sacrificing time to experiment 
Young was a theoretical scientist and not fond of carrying out experimental work. His friend and biographer, Hudson Gurney, reported that:

…he was afterwards accustomed to say, that at no period of his life was he particularly fond of repeating experiments, or even of very frequently attempting to originate new ones; considering that, however necessary to the advancement of science, they demanded a great sacrifice of time, and that when the fact was once established, that time was better employed in considering the purposes to which it might be applied, or the principles which it might tend to elucidate.

Not just a modulus man
Young was a polymath and made contributions to a wide range of fields:

  •  he discovered the phenomenon of astigmatism and proposed the threecolour theory of vision
  •  he played a significant role in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics
  •  he was a scholar of ancient Greek and coined the term ‘Indo-European’ to refer to a family of languages
  •  he contributed articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica on topics including the alphabet, dew, friction, Egypt, tides, and ‘anything of a medical nature’
  •  he acted as an advisor to the Admiralty on shipbuilding.

 

    References

    Youngs Modulus
    Properties of Matter

    Soft frogs

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

     The tongues of frogs and toads are finely evolved to capture prey. A cane toad’s tongue can stretch by 180% during unravelling which helps the toad to pull it back as it recoils. Compared to the human tongue, which has a bulk Young’s modulus of around 300 kPa, frogs’ tongues are much softer — the tongue of the northern leopard frog has a Young’s modulus of only 4.2 kPa, so is over 70 times softer than a human tongue.

     

     

     

    References

    Youngs Modulus
    Properties of Matter

    Elastic kangaroos

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Researchers have found that the way in which large kangaroos move has an interesting feature — the metabolic cost of the marsupials’ movement is independent of speed, making their hopping gait highly efficient. Typically, metabolic costs are proportional to speed, but kangaroo-hopping has an energetic advantage over other animals, particularly at high speeds. During hopping, energy is stored in collagen in the hind legs but the reasons underlying the efficiency of the motion are not well understood. Researchers have modelled kangaroo muscles as having a maximum stress of 300 kPa and have estimated that a typical 50 kg kangaroo can store nearly 360 J of strain energy, by contrast with the 55 J stored by similarly sized mammals.

    References

    Youngs Modulus
    Properties of Matter

    Young’s (or should it be yum’s?) modulus of food and other measurements

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Food scientists study the mechanical properties of food and have calculated the Young’s moduli of a range of foods.

    FoodYoung's modulus
    Tofu6 kPa-14 kPa
    Marshmallows29 kPa
    Gummy bears70 kPa
    Cheddar cheese240 kPa
    Carrots7 MPa
    Popcorn Kernels325 MPa
    •   An analysis of the material properties of chocolate concludes that adding fat decreases the rigidity and yield strength of samples.
    •  Stress-stain graphs have been plotted for various parts of the human anatomy including a cornea, a tendon, tooth enamel, skin, and human and canine vocal folds.
    •  Neutrons are calculated to have a Young’s modulus 20 orders of magnitude greater than diamond and are thought to be the most rigid known objects.

     

    References

    Young’s (or should it be yum’s) modulus of food and other measurements
    M. M. Ak, & S. Gunasekaran, Stress-strain curve analysis of Cheddar cheese under uniaxial compression. Journal of Food Science, vol. 57, no. 5, 1992, pp. 1078-1081.
    S. H. Williams, B. W. Wright, V. D. Truong, C. R. Daubert, & J. C. Vinyard, Mechanical properties of foods used in experimental studies of primate masticatory function. American Journal of Primatology: Official Journal of the American Society of Primatologists, vol. 67 no. 3, 2005, pp. 329-346.
    V. De Graef, F. Depypere, M. Minnaert, & K. Dewettinck, Chocolate yield stress as measured by oscillatory rheology. Food Research International, vol. 44, no. 9, 2011, 2660-2665.
    A. J. Pattison, M. McGarry, J. B. Weaver, K. D. & Paulsen, A dynamic mechanical analysis technique for porous media. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol. 62, no. 2, 2014, pp. 443-449.
    K. A. Pestka, Young’s Modulus of a Marshmallow, The Physics Teacher, vol. 46, no. 140, 2008, pp. 140-141.
    G. Wollensak, E. Spoerl, & T. Seiler, Stress-strain measurements of human and porcine corneas after riboflavin–ultraviolet-A-induced cross-linking. Journal of Cataract & Refractive Surgery, vol. 29, no. 9, 2003, 1780-1785.
    J. V. Benedict, L. B. Walker, & E. H. Harris, Stress-strain characteristics and tensile strength of unembalmed human tendon. Journal of Biomechanics, vol. 1, no. 53, 1968, pp. 1157-5663.
    L. H. He, N. Fujisawa, & M. V. Swain, Elastic modulus and stress–strain response of human enamel by nano-indentation. Biomaterials, vol. 27, no. 24, 2006, pp. 4388-4398.
    F. H. Silver, J. W. Freeman, & D. DeVore, Viscoelastic properties of human skin and processed dermis. Skin Research and Technology, vol. 7, no. 1, 2001, pp. 18-23
    Q. T. Tran, B. R. Gerratt, G. S. Berke, & J. Kreiman, Measurement of Young’s modulus in the in vivo human vocal folds. Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology, vol. 102, no. 8, 1993, p. 584-591.
    Y. B. Min, I. R. Titze, & F. Alipour-Haghighi, Stress-strain response of the human vocal ligament. Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology, vol. 104, no. 7, 1995, pp. 563-569.
    A. Bolonkin, Universe, Human Immortality and Future Human Evaluation, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 2012, p. 27

    Properties of Matter

    The icy aircraft carrier

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Material scientists have developed many ingenious substances to solve engineering problems, but one of the most audacious was the proposal to use pykrete to build aircraft carriers.

    During the Second World War, the Allied forces struggled to provide air support for distant Arctic convoys. Geoffrey Pyke, a journalist and inventor, came across data that indicated that ice mixed with wood fibres was significantly stronger than pure ice. Consequently, mixtures of ice and wood fibres came to be known as pykrete.

    Pykrete has a number of properties that make it a useful construction material: its low thermal conductivity means that it melts slowly and it is both much stronger and tougher than ice. Whilst frozen, pykrete has similar properties to concrete.

    Pyke passed the data on to Max Perutz, who would later win the Noble Prize for his work on haemoglobin. Perutz requisitioned a meat freezer at Smithfield Market in London to investigate the properties of pykrete, hiding the secret research behind rows of animal carcasses. To demonstrate the material’s strength to military leaders, a bullet was fired at a block of pykrete which so successfully deflected the projectile, it ricocheted into the shoulder of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

    Pyke pitched the idea of a ship, 800 m long and 9 m deep to Lord Mountbatten who felt his idea was worthy of further investigation and sent the inventor to see Churchill. Their meeting was dramatic:

    I was told that the Prime Minister was in his bath. I said, ‘Good, that’s exactly where I want him to be.’ I nipped upstairs and called out to him: ‘I have a block of new material I want to put in your bath.’ After that he suggested that I should take it to the Quebec Conference

    Construction of two prototype ships began in Alberta, Canada in 1942. However, the project never got beyond its early stages because problems related to manufacturing large quantities of pykrete and steering the large vessels were never resolved.

    Despite the failure of this project, Pyke continued to propose new inventions: he observed that, in post-war Europe, coal was in short supply but sugar and unemployed people were plentiful, so he proposed trains powered by 20 or 30 people pedalling stationary bicycles.

     

    References

    Stress
    Properties of Matter

    Coulomb’s constructions

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Charles de Coulomb carried out some of the earliest published research on brittle materials. His work led to him travelling widely.

    Coulomb’s family left Paris after his father lost money in unwise investments. Coulomb enrolled to study as a military engineer and one of his first roles on graduating in 1761 was the construction of fortifications on the island of Martinique. Although he became seriously ill a number of times during the posting, the determined young engineering officer carried out experiments on the shear and tensile strength of rocks and devised an expression for the bending of a rectangular beam.

    Whilst working on Fort Bourbon in Martinique, he contributed to the development of a model of how brittle materials respond to stresses, known as the Mohr-Coulomb theory.

    Subsequently, Coulomb was posted to Rochefort in western France to supervise the construction of new kind of fort. In charge of the project was the military engineer, the Marquis de Montalembert, described by a modern historian as “a clever, well-connected, very persistent, insufferable dilettante, wishful thinker and, to put it bluntly, fraud”.

    The project did not proceed smoothly — the Marquis neglected the work and Coulomb suffered from seasickness, having to travel to the Île-d’Aix three times a week to inspect the slow progress. Despite his difficulties with sea travel, Coulomb was named ‘the king’s intendant for waters and fountains’ and worked on a project to build canals in Brittany for which he was awarded a jewelled gold watch complete with a second hand, which he used in experiments.

    In addition to the science of materials, Coulomb was interested in friction and devised what has been called the third law of friction, namely that frictional force is independent of the velocity of an object for ordinary sliding speeds.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Pliny’s shattering mistake

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Writing in the first century, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder displayed a misconception about the properties of diamonds. Whilst diamonds are famously hard, they are also brittle meaning they can be shattered with a blow from a hammer without damaging the hammer. By contrast, Pliny wrote:

    [Diamonds] are of such unspeakable hardness that when laid on the anvil it gives the blow back with such force as to shatter hammer and anvil to pieces. Its superiority over iron and fire is subdued by goat’s blood in which it must be soaked when the blood is fresh and warm. Then only when the hammer is wielded with such force as to break both it and the anvil will it yield. When it yields it falls into such small pieces that they can scarcely be seen.

     

    References

    Strain
    Properties of Matter

    Strained and plastic diamonds

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Whilst macroscopic diamonds cannot undergo large strains without breaking, researchers have manufactured diamond nanoneedles that can experience strains of up to 9% without shattering. This property allows the nanoneedles to be bent at right angles, a deformation that would be impossible with macroscopic diamonds.

    In the high temperatures and pressures within the Earth, diamonds can undergo plastic deformation, causing vacancy clusters within the crystal lattice. Such dislocations can give rise to brown and pink coloured diamonds.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Sweet glasses

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Candy floss and lollipops are technically considered glasses as they are materials which have been cooled to a rigid state without crystallising. The film industry makes use of the similar properties of certain kinds of sugar and glass. Bottles and window panes on movie sets are often made of sugar so the props can display a safe but realistically brittle shattering behaviour when broken.

     Sugars change from being soft and rubbery to a hard, brittle material at what is referred to as the glass transition temperature. The transition temperature is dependent on the moisture content of the confectionery. Any water in the air acts as a plasticiser, lowering the transition temperature to room temperature and making the sugar rubbery.

    Glassy sweets typically have transition temperatures in the range of 65-70°C whilst the sucrose used to make candy floss has a transition temperature of around 60°C. Sweets with high moisture content, such as jellies, gummies and marshmallows, have transition temperatures as low as -40°C so exist in a soft, amorphous state at room temperature.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Don’t go with the flow

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    It is often reported that glass is a super-cooled liquid and that glasses gradually flow over time. This claim is linked to the observation that old windows, for example those in cathedrals, are thicker at the bottom than at the top. This notion is actually incorrect — once solidified, glass no longer flows.

    The wedge shape of old windows has an alternative explanation. Historical glass-making techniques were unsophisticated and it was difficult to produce panes that were of uniform thickness. To prevent fractures, glaziers typically chose to fit the panes with the thickest part at the bottom, to reduce the stress on the thinner material.

     Glass can flow if heated, but medieval window glass would have to experience temperatures of over 400°C for over a period of 800 years for significant flow to occur.

    References

    Stress
    Properties of Matter

    Material accidents

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Richard Feynman famously demonstrated the role of brittleness in the failure of a rubber O-ring in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. The properties of materials have contributed to a number of accidents.

    Liberty Ships 
    During the Second World War, the demand for new ships was high. US manufacturers switched to using welded joints rather than the traditional, but slower, riveted joints. Ships produced this way were referred to as Liberty Ships and, of the 2,700 vessels produced, 400 suffered from fractures, with the hulls of 20 ships breaking in two. In one dramatic case, in 1943, the tanker SS Schenectady had just completed sea trials and was in a fitting-out dock in Portland, Oregon. Though the conditions were calm, it was cold — the air temperature was -3°C and the sea a chilly 4°C. The Schenectady fractured suddenly, with such force that the sound of rupture was heard a mile away. A large fracture ran through the deck and the sides of the hull, causing the ship to jack-knife, lifting the central part of the vessel out of the water and forcing the bow and stern down to the floor of the dock. The cause of the failure was the brittle fracture of the low-grade steel used in the hull, made more brittle by the low temperatures. The Schenectady was repaired and able to re-enter service only four months after the fracture.

    Molasses wave 
    In January 1919, at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston, a tank filled with 8.7 million litres of molasses burst, killing 21 people and injuring 150. Eyewitnesses reported hearing a thunderclap, then a noise like a machine-gun as the tank’s rivets were forced out and they felt the ground shake. The accident produced a wave of molasses 8 m high at its peak which travelled at 56 km/h. The relatively high density of molasses meant the wave had considerable momentum, destroying over 150 buildings and buckling overhead railway tracks. Cold temperatures preceding the disaster had caused the ductile rivets to become brittle and investigators cited brittle failure of the tank’s rivets as a cause of the disaster.

    Titanic steel 
    Modern metallurgic analysis of steel taken from the wreck of the Titanic suggests that brittleness may have contributed to the disaster. The chemical composition of a steel plate recovered from the wreck showed it to be plain carbon steel with above-average levels of phosphorous and sulphur but much lower levels of manganese than modern steel, reducing its toughness. Researchers concluded that the steel used in the Titanic would have been prone to brittle fracture, behaviour that would have been exacerbated by the sea temperature of -2°C at the time of the collision.

    How pigeons broke the Brooklyn Bridge 
    In 1981, two steel cables supporting the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge snapped, injuring a man. One of the 180 m long stays hit Akira Armi, fracturing his arm and skull. The other cable damaged the wooden planks of a footpath. The cables had been supporting the bridge since 1883 and their failure is attributed to the acidic wear caused by pigeon droppings.

    The saggy suspension bridge 
    Samuel Brown began his career in 1795 as a naval captain and developed an interest in the construction of wrought iron chains. On retiring from the navy, he founded a chain and anchor works. This commercial concern with chains led Brown to develop designs for suspension bridges and he bid, but lost out to Brunel, to build the Clifton Suspension Bridge. He was, however, successful in winning the contract for the Stockton Railway Bridge over the Tees which was to be the first rail suspension bridge. Once complete, a test steam locomotive pulling a train of carriages loaded with coal was driven over the bridge. As the train passed over the cable-supported deck, it began to sag significantly.

    The trial crossing was witnessed by Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson, inventor of the first steam locomotive. He later reported that “when the engine and train went over for the first time there was a wave before the engine of something like two feet, just like a carpet”. To rectify this dramatic behaviour, a pier was built under the bridge to support it and only horse-drawn carriages were allowed to use the crossing. In 1842, Stephenson replaced the suspension bridge with a cast-iron span.

    Metal fatigue 
    A train accident in Versailles in 1842 prompted the start of systematic research interest into the phenomenon of metal fatigue. Almost 800 travellers returning from a celebration in honour of King Louis Phillipe had boarded a train to return to Paris. During the journey, a locomotive axle snapped, causing one of the engines pulling the carriages to leave the track, spraying hot coals and igniting the wooden carriages. As was customary at the time, the doors of the carriages had been locked, and many people (estimates vary from 60-100) died in the accident. Following the disaster, August Wöhler developed the stress-life method for predicting metal fatigue.

     

    References

    Material Disasters
    R. P. Feynman, ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. London, Penguin Books, 1998.

    Properties of Matter

    Concrete thinking

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Concrete is reported to be the most abundant man-made material on the planet. It is considered to be a brittle or quasi-brittle material and, in general, the higher the strength of the concrete the more brittle it will be.

    Despite its common association with modern architecture, concrete is a surprisingly ancient material, with some archaeologists claiming lime-based concretes were in use over 20,000 years ago.

    The Romans were fans of concrete and used it in many constructions, including the Pantheon’s dome. Researchers have claimed that some forms of Roman concrete are more durable than those commonly used today and, moreover, are continuing to strengthen as they age. Analysis of samples taken from harbour structures shows that Roman concrete contains a material, aluminous tobermorite, that is not found in contemporary concrete and which gives the material additional strength. Aluminous tobermorite is formed through a reaction between concrete and seawater, making the ancient material progressively less and less likely to crack as it ages.

    The setting of concrete is not a simple drying process but a chemical reaction (hydration) in which the reaction products gradually fill gaps left between the aggregate material to form a strong matrix. This curing process continues as long as moisture is present and the reaction never reaches completion, meaning that concrete continues to gain strength as it ages. Concrete typically displays some self-healing properties as non-hydrated particles will remain in a sample and cracks can allow water to reach pockets of unreacted material, causing further setting and repair of the crack. However, deliberately leaving non-hydrated particles in concrete is both uneconomical and reduces the strength of the material. Researchers have therefore proposed mixing bacteria into concrete to form a self-healing system. Bacteria can survive within setting concrete and become activated when exposed to water that enters cracks, depositing calcium carbonate into the matrix of the concrete and sealing the damaged area.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Pipkin’s light bulb moment

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Early electric light bulbs gave off a harsh, glaring light. So, as a new recruit to General Electric in 1919, Marvin Pipkin had the brilliant idea to make bulbs with a frosted inner surface to give a gentler glow. His managers smiled indulgently and asked the eager young chemist to work on solving the problem.

    They didn’t tell Pipkin that they considered the task impossible because all previous attempts to produce frosted bulbs had failed – the frosting process made the glass too brittle to handle. Many new starters at General Electric had been given the task as a kind of induction ritual into the challenges of research.

    Pipkin, however, didn’t know the task was ‘impossible’. Whilst experimenting with acids to etch the inside of bulbs, Pipkin had just added some cleaning solution to a bulb when he received a phone call and knocked the bulb over. After finishing the call, he returned to his work and accidentally dropped the bulb he had knocked over. To his surprise, the bulb didn’t shatter on hitting the floor, but rolled under his desk. Without understanding the mechanism, Pipkin had managed to make a non-brittle frosted bulb. In 1927, it was estimated that his invention had saved light bulb users over $10 million as his frosted bulbs were more luminous than clear bulbs.

    References

    Stress
    Properties of Matter

    Stretching the truth

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Strange sorts of elasticity 
    Typically, materials become thinner when they are stretched and thicker when they are squashed. However, auxetic materials, or anti-rubber, display the opposite property, becoming thicker when stretched and thinner when squashed. Poisson’s ratio is the ratio of strains perpendicular and parallel to the applied stress for a given sample. Typically, for materials like rubber, Poisson’s ratio is positive, meaning that they get thinner when stretched. By contrast, auxetic materials have a negative Poisson’s ratio. The structure of some auxetic materials consists of two-dimensional bow-tie-shaped cells. When the cells are stretched, the centre of the bow-tie-like structure is forced outwards, causing the material to get thicker.

    It is thought auxetic materials may have a number of potential applications because they have excellent sound absorption properties. Alternatively, they may be used to manufacture smart bandages which, if impregnated with a drug, can release a dose that varies depending on the force of the wound on the bandage. 

    Negative stiffness
    Researchers have developed a material with negative stiffness. A pure tin matrix with inclusions of ferroelastic vanadium dioxide behaves in a counterintuitive way — the direction of deformation of the material can be in the opposite direction to the deforming force. The effect arises because vanadium dioxide at equilibrium stores elastic potential energy so when compressed continues to collapse in the direction of the applied force (imagine a spring that, when compressed, continues to compress by itself). An alternative way to produce the effect of negative stiffness is with a magnetic device: engineers have developed magnetic negative stiffness dampers, which consist of an arrangement of permanent magnets in a conductive pipe. Negative stiffness materials may be used in vibration damping to dissipate mechanical energy

    Super stretchy seaweed 
    By adding a seaweed extract to a hydrogel, Harvard scientists have developed a substance which can stretch to 20 times its original length. The material is being considered as a replacement for cartilage and for covering wounds.

    Elastic conductors 
    New types of electrical circuits will be possible in the future due to the development of elastic conductors. The material consists of silver flakes in a rubber matrix that can retain their conductivity even when subjected to strains of 215%.

    Stretch bolts
    Bolts are designed to be elastic so that they exert a clamping force on the material they are fastening. Bolts are therefore normally designed to be tightened to just below their yield point so that they exert the maximum force, yet retain their elasticity. By contrast, torque-to-yield fasteners, sometimes called stretch bolts, are designed to be tightened so that they exceed their yield point, undergoing plastic deformation to become permanently elongated thus strengthening the joint.

    Molecular car tyres   A single molecule of a polymer can contain thousands or even millions of atoms. In the case of rubber, the crosslinking between different polymer molecules can be so extensive that a macroscopic object, for example, a car tyre might be considered a single molecule

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Toy physics

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Super balls are a well-known toy made from an elastic polymer so that they have very high coefficients of restitution (around 0.9) meaning that they bounce back from a surface with 90% of their initial velocity. Wham-O, the manufacturers of the original super ball, produced a giant version of the toy as a promotional stunt. The ball was accidentally dropped from a room on the 23rd floor of a hotel in Australia. It is said to have bounced back up to the 15th floor on its first bounce and then struck a parked car, causing considerable damage.

     Silly Putty® was first created in 1943 by James Wright, an engineer at General Electric, who mixed silicone oil with boric acid. It is reported that Wright threw the resulting goo onto the floor and was surprised to observe that it bounced. The engineers at General Electric failed to develop a use for the strange new material and it was six years before the material was marketed as a toy. ‘The Great Silly Putty Drop’ experiment was carried out at Alfred University in 1989. Some curious researchers wanted to determine whether a 45 kg ball of the putty, dropped from the top of the engineering building, would bounce or shatter. To the surprise of many, the ball initially bounced up to a height of 2.4 m and then shattered when it returned to the ground. The strange properties of Silly Putty are thought to arise from weak intermolecular oxygen-boron bonds, which are continually being made and broken.

    Silly Putty is described as having time-dependent properties: if it is pulled apart slowly it forms long strands, but a sudden blow from a hammer can cause it to shatter. These properties resemble those of polymers, which can transition into a brittle state.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Overbaked Gorilla Glass

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Another glass product was also discovered by serendipity. In 1952, Donald Stookey, a chemist at the Corning Glass Works, placed a sample of photosensitive glass in a furnace at 600°C and left it to bake overnight. A fault with the temperature control caused the furnace’s temperature to rise to 900°C and Stookey must have expected his sample to have been damaged by the excess heat. Surprisingly, the new milky white material was stronger and harder than the original glass and it was lighter than aluminium. Even stranger, when Stookey tried to remove the material, his tongs slipped and, rather than shattering, the new substance bounced. It was named Pyroceram and soon found many applications, including in microwave ovens and the nose cones of missiles. Stookey’s innovation is the basis for Gorilla Glass, a brand of strengthened glass that is used in mobile phone screens.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    The human strain

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Typically, tendons can experience a strain of up to 8% and stresses of 100 Nmm -2 before breaking. For a 70 kg man running a marathon, peak ground force can be assumed to be around 2.7 times his body weight, a force of 1900 N. The Achilles tendon has a cross-section of around 90 mm 2 and during typical running, the tendon might stretch by around 5% and experience a force approximately half the typical breaking stress. The length of the Achilles tendon is around 30 cm and therefore, at peak strain during a run, may store around 35 J. One calculation assumes that 7% of this energy is converted to heat and that the specific heat capacity of the tendon is 3500 J/K/kg leading to a temperature increase of 0.02 K during running. However, if it were assumed that the tendon was perfectly thermally insulated, its temperature would rise by 2 K for every hundred strides.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Marvellous materials

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Low density solids 
    Aerogels are remarkable materials that have the lowest density of any known solid. The materials have structures similar to honeycombs and are typically made of carbon or silicon. They are excellent thermal insulators and can withstand high temperatures so are being considered for use in a number of applications in spaceflight, including as thermal insulation in Mars rovers.

    Three times the strength of a diamond 
    One contender for the strongest material, at least when tested at a temperature of 77K, is an arrangement of carbon atoms known as carbyne, which is reported to have a strength of at least 251 GPa. Carbyne consists of a chain of carbon atoms linked by double or alternating single and triple bonds and has twice the tensile strength of carbon nanotubes and three times the strength of diamond. Researchers at the University of Vienna have recently found a method to produce the material in bulk quantities.

    Strong spider silk 
    Physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that spider silk might be capable of some of the feats shown in the Spiderman films. For example, in Spiderman 2, the hero stops a runaway train using his spider silk, an effect that is estimated to require the exertion of a force of around 105 N. The maximum stress on the strands of silk is estimated to be 1.3 GPa, which is within the typical range for the yield stress of spider’s silk of 1.1-1.5 GPa.

    Spider silk has the unusual property of being partially elastic and partially plastic. Even small applied forces cause spider silk to deform slightly, meaning some energy dissipation occurs for any load. Researchers have found that whilst many wires made from materials, such as Kevlar and metal, oscillate around their starting point when twisted, spider silk does not. The silk’s ability to yield under small displacements dampens the amplitude of rotational oscillations and stops a spider from spinning for long periods of time when descending on a piece of silk.

    Though spider silk is often cited as the strongest naturally occurring material, researchers at the University of Portsmouth have discovered that limpets’ teeth might be stronger. The tensile strength of the teeth was found to be in the range of 3-6.5 GPa. Their impressive strength is explained by the presence of reinforcing nanofibres.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    The enigma of Starlite

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    One of the strangest stories in material science concerns the mysterious substance called Starlite. It was reported that Starlite could be applied to surfaces like a paint yet was capable of resisting temperatures of over 3000 °C. Frustratingly, Starlite’s inventor died without publishing its formulation.

    Maurice Ward, a hairdresser from Hartlepool, enjoyed inventing things in his spare time. In the 1980s, he bought an extruding machine that was being sold off by a local chemical plant and began experimenting with manufacturing materials. He initially attempted to make a material that could be used in car bonnets but, after disappointing results, threw away the samples he had produced.

    After learning about an air disaster at Manchester Airport, Ward became interested in developing a flameproof material. He retrieved the results of his car bonnet experiment from the bin and mixed them with solvents in a kitchen blender. After passing the resulting mixture through the extruder, Ward found that the sheets of materials he had produced withstood the heat of a blow torch flame and he named the material Starlite.

    Showing great faith in his newly produced material, he placed some Starlite on his hand, aimed the blow torch at it and was amazed to discover that he couldn’t feel the heat. His discovery was met with incredulity from the scientific community and Ward decided to silence the doubters by demonstrating Starlite’s properties on the BBC television programme Tomorrow’s World

     The presenter first demonstrated the effect of a blow torch on an untreated egg – almost instantaneous destruction. Then, the blow torch was turned on an egg covered in Starlite for around four minutes.

    On turning off the flame, the surface of the egg was barely warm to the touch and the egg was cracked to show it was raw inside. This demonstration caused renewed interest from scientists who found that Starlite could resist temperatures equivalent to 10,000 °C in simulated nuclear blasts.

    Ward was resistant to sharing samples of his material for fear that companies would reverse engineer the material and he did not patent Starlite to avoid describing its manufacture. He died having only shared the details of the manufacturing process with a number of close relatives. In 2017, the American company Thermashield reported on its blog that it had acquired the rights to manufacture Starlite from Ward’s widow and had successfully reproduced the material.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Elastic diagnosis

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Doctors have, for many years, relied on manual palpitation to differentiate between different tissues in the human body due to the way they respond to stress. For example, researchers have discovered that tumours have different elastic properties from healthy tissues and that benign and malignant tumours have different responses to shearing stresses (malignant live tumours have greater average shear stiffness than benign ones).

    In a development of manual palpitation techniques, researchers have discovered a number of different approaches to precisely measuring the response of tissues to applied stress, a technique known as elastography. Rather than using a doctor’s fingers, in quantitative techniques stresses are applied either by physiological processes, such as the pulse or by artificial stimuli such as ultrasound. The tissue’s response to the applied stresses can be detected using mechanical sensors such as accelerometers, or with ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Germain’s genius

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Sophie Germain was a French physicist and philosopher who made significant contributions to the study of elasticity. Germain’s father was a wealthy Paris merchant and, on the fall of the Bastille in 1789, when she was 13, Sophie was forced to stay inside due to the dangerous atmosphere on the streets of Paris. She occupied herself by reading in her father’s library and developed an interest in mathematics. It is reported that she became so absorbed in her reading that servants had to remind her to eat. Her parents sought to discourage her academic obsession. Sophie would often continue to work through the night so her concerned parents extinguished her candle and removed her clothes, forcing her to go to bed. Undaunted, Sophie continued to work, even when the ink in her inkwell froze.

    The École Polytechnique was founded when Sophie turned 18. It would go on to become a world leading university but Sophie’s sex prevented her from studying at the institution. Undeterred, she acquired lecture notes from the professors. She sent her work to the mathematician, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, under the assumed name Monsieur Antione-August Le Blanc. Lagrange was so impressed with the quality of ‘Le Blanc’s’ work he sought out the mysterious correspondent and offered Germain encouragement, becoming her mentor. She also corresponded with Carl Friedrich Gauss, admitting to him that she feared “the ridicule attached to a female scientist”.

    Germain became interested in a competition set up by the Paris Academy of Sciences to develop a mathematical model of the vibrations of elastic surfaces, such as those observed by Ernst Chladni in his famous experiment.

    Perhaps because Lagrange had stated that the solution to the elasticity problem would require the development of new mathematics, only Germain and Poisson entered the competition. When Poisson was elected to the Academy, the rules of the competition made him ineligible, freeing Germain to work on the problem without a competitor. After three years of work, she submitted her paper for the prize but the judges felt her solution, whilst ingenious, did not establish the ‘true movement’ of the plate. After the failure to find a winner in the first round, the competition extended for two years but Germain’s second entry, submitted anonymously, contained errors, and the competition was extended again. She submitted her third attempt in 1816, seven years after beginning to work on the problem, this time under her own name. Her work won the prize and she became the first woman to be given an award by the Paris Academy.

    Despite winning their prize, Germain remained excluded from lectures at the academy because the only women allowed to attend were the wives of members. Years later, she befriended Fourier, who had become secretary of the Academy, and he allowed her to attend sessions. A fitting memorial for her brilliance and determination was the foundation of the Sophie Germain Prize, conferred by the Paris Academy of Sciences to mathematicians.

     

    References

    Hookes Law
    Properties of Matter

    Getting your hooks into Hooke

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Robert Hooke is immortalised in his eponymous law. However, he made at least two errors in its application. First, he appears to have believed the relationship between force and extension held for compressing gases. Second, Hooke seems not to have been aware of the concept of elastic limit.

    Thomas Young was the first person to describe the elastic limit, though he didn’t use the term. He wrote: “A permanent alteration of form is most perceptible in such substances as are most destitute of rigidity, and approach most of the nature of fluids. It limits the strength of materials, with regard to practical purposes, almost as much as fracture…”

    Hooke’s health 
    Though several aspects of Hooke’s life are debated by historians, there is a consensus on Hooke’s ‘wretched’ appearance. He was described as “of motley, middling stature, somewhat crook’d, pale-faced, his face but little below his large head, his eyes full, grey, popping and not quick”. Hooke suffered from a long list of ailments during his life including “catarrh, terrible headaches, back pain, skin disorders, blisters and boils, worms, indigestion, in-growing toenails and the most gruesome nightmares” for which he tried a range of different contemporary treatments including cupping and blood-letting. He took pills containing senna, rhubarb, iron, mercury, laudanum and sulphur. His colleague, Robert Boyle, suggested blowing powdered human faeces into his eyes as a remedy. Given his appearance and ailments, one can see why Samuel Pepys wrote, after meeting the scientist in 1665: “Hooke is the most, but promises the least of any man in the world that I ever laid eyes upon.”

    Breathing in a vacuum   Hooke became interested in the newly discovered vacuum and used an air pump to personally investigate its properties. Contemporary scientists were fascinated by the effects of vacuums on living creatures. A Danish visitor was inspired to write a verse commemorating a graphic demonstration at the Royal Society:

    To the Danish Agent late was showne,
    That where noe Ayre is, there’s noe
    breath. A glasse this secret did make
    knowne Where in a Catt was put to
    death. Out of the glass the Ayre
    being screwed, Pusse died, and ne’re
    so much as mewed.

    For Hooke, the natural progression from animal experimentation was studying the effects of the vacuum on a human subject. In 1671, he constructed a device formed of two barrels, one inside the other, with the outer barrel filled with water to resist the vacuum in the inner chamber. The tops of the barrels were sealed with cement and a valve fitted to the inner chamber so that the subject could control the flow of air to the pump. He demonstrated the barrel experiment in his home to avoid damaging it in transit. Whilst Hooke sat in the decompression chamber, about a tenth of the volume of air was pumped out of the inner barrel for a period of 15 minutes. Apart from popped ears and some loss of hearing, Hooke reported no discomfort during the experiment.

    Artificial canine respiration 
    One of Hooke’s most gruesome experiments was carried out to settle a contemporary debate about the function of the lungs. Some of his peers believed that the motion of the lungs drove the circulation of blood and so their motion was necessary for life. Others argued that air was the essential component. In a demonstration performed in front of members of the Royal Society, a dog’s windpipe was cut and bellows inserted into the hole so that air could be pumped into the unfortunate animal’s lungs. During the cruel experiment, the dog’s lungs were exposed so that the audience could observe their motion. Hooke has therefore been cited as an early pioneer of artificial respirators.

    He repeated the demonstration using two sets of bellows to keep another dog’s lungs fully inflated but stationary, by cutting a hole in the pleural membrane. Even though the dog’s lungs remained unmoving, its heart continued to beat indicating that the motion of the lungs was not essential for circulation.

    Hooke’s Monumental contribution to London 
    In addition to his scientific research, Hooke worked as an architect. Following the Great Fire of London, he submitted a plan for the rebuilding of the city that consisted of a grid layout with vast market squares. With Christopher Wren, Hooke co-designed the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the Monument. However, for Hooke, the Monument was more than a simple memorial to the Great Fire. He designed each step of the staircase to be exactly six inches high so that he could investigate the relationship between air pressure and altitude. He also planned to use the Monument as a 61 m telescope, by fitting lenses in an underground chamber and at the top of the column. However, vibrations from passing traffic and the movement of air within the column prevented Hooke from being able to take the sensitive parallax readings he had intended to record.

    Hooke’s claim to the inverse square law 
    Hooke may have a claim to the co-discovery of the inverse square law of gravitation. He wrote to Newton in 1680 explaining his idea that the motion of the planets was due to a perpendicular attraction. In a subsequent letter, Hooke raised the possibility of an inverse square relationship between gravitational attraction and distance. To simulate planetary motion, Hooke developed a demonstration in which the oscillations of a conical pendulum (a simple pendulum tracing out a circle rather than a line) were projected onto a perpendicular surface. He added a smaller pendulum to the wire of the conical pendulum to simulate the motion of a satellite.

    However, historians of science report that the inverse square relationship was, by the late 1660s, well known and had been described by a number of writers. Newton described the inverse square law in his 1687 Principia and, whilst he acknowledged Hooke’s contribution to his work (but only after encouragement from Halley), he downplayed its significance. Hooke was not mollified by this acknowledgement and never forgave Newton for his perceived plagiarism.

    Hooke the polymath 
    Hooke’s research interests were wide-ranging. He experimented with model ornithopters (machines that fly by flapping wings) and made observations with a telescope that led him to conclude that the Moon “seems to be some very fruitful place, that is, to have its surface all covered over with some kinds of vegetable substances”.

    Hooke is also notable for the remarkable illustrations that he used in his works, including those of objects he observed through his microscope. He reports that, when attempting to observe an ant, he initially struggled to “think of a way to make it suffer its body to ly quiet in a natural posture”. He came up with a novel solution to the problem:

    I made choice of the tallest grown among them, and separating it from the
    rest, I gave it a Gill of Brandy, or Spirit of Wine, which after a while e’en
    knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless… and after l had
    taken it out [of the alcohol], and put its body and legs in a natural posture,
    remained moveless about an hour.

    Hooke made a number of contributions to watchmaking. He is reported to have invented the anchor escapement used in pendulum clocks and the watch balance spring. Though his technological attention to detail was impressive, his focus on other people could be more careless. Whilst working on horological projects, Hooke collaborated with the watchmaker Thomas Tompion but in his writing repeatedly referred to the craftsman as ‘Tomkins’.

    References

    Hookes Law
    Properties of Matter

    Cauchy’s stressful science

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Hooke’s law was generalised to three-dimensional materials by Augustin-Louis Cauchy. However, the stress of physics was not the only strain Cauchy experienced.

    Cauchy’s parents were royalists and his family were forced to flee Paris after the French Revolution. Food was scarce in the post-revolutionary turmoil and, for a time, the Cauchys had to live on a limited supply of hard crackers and rice. Cauchy inherited his parents’ beliefs: he was a staunch royalist and Catholic, and he was argumentative and belligerent, becoming unpopular amongst his colleagues.

    Though he was a prolific publisher, Cauchy’s approach to working was so chaotic he sometimes published the same work twice. He overwhelmed the Paris Academy with long publications, forcing the introduction of a rule that remains in force today: that papers cannot exceed four pages. Undeterred, he founded his own journal and even published his ideas in local newspapers.

    After the 1830 revolution, Cauchy was again forced to flee Paris, travelling first to Switzerland, then to Italy. He settled in Prague, becoming the science tutor of a young French duke. Cauchy was a poor teacher and his student mocked him – when Cauchy revealed he had worked on the repair of the Paris drainage system, the duke gleefully told those he met that Cauchy’s career had begun in the sewers.

    When Cauchy was able to return to Paris, his stubbornness meant he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new regime. He found a post at the Bureau of Longitude, but because of his refusal to swear the oath, he wasn’t paid and was banned from submitting papers. Cauchy’s stubbornness was temporarily rewarded when, 10 years after his return to Paris, King Louis-Phillipe fled for England and the oath was abolished. Within four years, it was reintroduced by the new Emperor of France for all state functionaries, but Cauchy was exempted. He died a few years later having made significant contributions to elasticity, wave theory and several branches of mathematics.

    References

    Up next

    The Gas Laws

    Properties of Matter

    Atoms in incense

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    One of the earliest known estimates of the number particles in a piece of matter was made in 1646 by the monk Chrysostomus Magnenus. He assumed that it took one ‘atom’ of incense to reach the nose in order to perceive a smell. By comparing the ratio of volumes of the cavity in his nose and the volume of the church, he estimated that in a piece of incense not larger than a pea, there were at least 7.776 x 10 17 atoms.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Avogadro

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Amedeo Avogadro can be considered as something of a late-starter by the standards of most physicists. He followed his father into a legal career, after completing a doctorate in ecclesiastical law. Whilst practising as a lawyer, aged 24, he studied physics and mathematics privately and eventually rose to become a professor of physics. Avogadro married, had seven children and his biographer reports he “found more satisfaction and enjoyment in the serene atmosphere of his family... than in the pursuit of social and professional success.” For example, he organised a family newspaper that reported the major events in his relatives’ lives.

    Avogadro built on the work of Gay-Lussac to develop his hypothesis that equal volumes of gas contained the same number of molecules. However, he was unaware of the value of the constant that came to be named after him and it took almost 50 years before the idea was widely accepted. This was for several reasons: primarily, Avogadro was isolated from the mainstream community of scientists, but also his work did not clearly define the concept of a molecule and the number of particles in a gas could not be directly measured. Ampère independently arrived at the same conclusion and dedicated a version of his book on electrodynamics to Avogadro, but misspelt his name.

    Many different methods have been suggested for determining the value of Avogadro’s constant. Boltwood and Rutherford used the quantity of helium emitted by a sample of pure radium. Planck was able to determine a value of the Boltzmann constant from his derived radiation law and, as the gas constant had been experimentally measured, could then estimate Avogadro’s constant. In the early 20th century, the development of X-ray crystallography led to the measurement of the volume occupied by a single atom, allowing the value of the constant to be precisely determined.

    References

    Boyles Law
    Properties of Matter

    Boyle’s unusual laws

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Marriage policy 
    Robert Boyle was the fourteenth child and seventh son of aristocratic Irish parents. Boyle’s father, Richard, was described as “immensely rich” and “the greatest landlord in Ireland”. Robert’s siblings were forced to make often disastrous marriages to secure the social standing of the family and Robin (as he was known to his family), narrowly escaped a forced marriage.

    Perhaps because of his siblings’ unhappy experiences, Boyle never married, a decision he reported was “at first out of Policy afterwards more Philosophically”. He argued that:

    …yet I have observed so few Happy Matches, and so many Unfortunate ones; and have so rarely seen men love their wives at the rate they did, whilst they were their Mistresses, that I wonder not, that Legislators thought it necessary to make marriages Indissoluble, to make them Lasting.

    Day of Judgement 
    Boyle was a studious boy. At Eton, one of his masters reported that: “His delight is in his learning, he takes noe pleasure in playing with boyes nor running abroad.” He was also devoutly religious - whilst on a tour of Europe, a severe thunderstorm made him reflect on his unreadiness for his own Day of Judgement and he wrote tracts against swearing and make-up. In Florence with his brother, it is reported that:

    Nor did he sometimes scruple, in his Governor’s Company, to visit the famousest Bordellos; whither resorting out of bare Curiosity, he retain’d there an unblemish’t Chastity, & still return’d thence as honest as he went thither. Professing that he never found any such sermons against them, as they were against themselues.

    Solving transmutation 
    An adherent of alchemy, Boyle attempted to experimentally demonstrate the transmutation of elements. In a publication in 1625, he claimed that whilst mixing mercury and gold in the palm of his hand, the mixture had become hot, and he reported he was approaching a solution to the problem of transmutation.

    Mercurial discovery 
    Boyle is perhaps best known for his eponymous law. He investigated the relationship between pressure and volume in a gas using a J-shaped tube filled with mercury. The shorter limb of the tube was around 30 cm high and sealed. The longer side was 2.4 m tall, so Boyle was forced to carry out the experiment in a stairwell. The tube was filled with mercury which trapped a volume of air in the shorter end of the tube. Boyle poured mercury into the longer limb and used a small mirror behind the tube to measure the height of the mercury against a scale marked in sixteenths of an inch on a piece of paper. Decimals were not in common usage at the time and Boyle reported the length of the trapped gas as fractions which seem awkward by today’s standards, for example, “107 13/16 inches” and “107 7/13 inches”. In addition, the graphical display of numerical data was not usual practice and Boyle did not include a graph showing the relationship between variables in his paper.

    The pressure of mercury could cause the tube to crack so he placed the tube in a wooden box to prevent the loss of any of the expensive mercury in the case of fracture. He attempted to investigate the effect of temperature on volume and reported that he had heated the shorter side of the J-tube with a candle “so that we scarce doubted, but that the expansion of the air would, notwithstanding the weight that opprest it, have been made conspicuous, if the fear of unseasonably breaking the glass had not kept us from increasing the heat”.

    Hopes for the future  
    In the 1660s, Boyle wrote a to-do list he hoped science might achieve in the future:

    •  The Prolongation of Life
    •  The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in Youth
    •  The Art of Flying
    • The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there
    •  The Cure of Wounds at a Distance
    •  The Cure of Diseases at a Distance, or at least by Transplantation
    •  The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions
    •  The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only
    •  The Acceleration of the production of things out of Seed • The Transmutation of Metalls
    •  The makeing of Glass Malleable
    •  The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables
    •  The Liquor Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums
    •  The making of Parabolicall & Hyperbolicall Glasses
    •  The making of Armour Light, and extremely hard.

    An apology 
    Despite his achievements, Boyle seems to have struggled with paperwork and had various mishaps with his correspondence. On one occasion, he claimed that “highly corrosive Liquor” destroyed some papers, whilst in another case “a kindl’d coal unluckily landed on your Letter”. Ultimately, his misadventures with paperwork led him to publish a general apology:

    An Advertisement of Mr Boyle, about the Loss of many of his Writings: Address’d to Mr J.W. to be communicated to those Friends of His, that are Virtuosi, which may serve as a kind of Preface to most of his Mutilated and Unfinish’d Writings

     

     

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Balloons and boron

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Jacques Charles was responsible for launching the world’s first unmanned hydrogen balloon. The balloon took off from the Champs de Mars, close to the current site of the Eiffel Tower, and when it landed, it is reported that it frightened a group of peasants who tore the remains apart with pitchforks.

    Like Charles, Gay-Lussac was also a pioneer of balloon flight and made an ascent with the physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot. The physicists reached an altitude of 7000 m and demonstrated that the Earth’s magnetic field does not vary significantly with height. Gay-Lussac is notable for a number of other achievements: he was the codiscoverer of boron; was the first writer to use the terms ‘pipette’, ‘burette’ and ‘titrate’; he pioneered flame-resistant fabrics; and, with Humboldt, he measured the charge of a torpedo fish with an electroscope

    References

    Charles Law
    Properties of Matter

    Whose law is it anyway?

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Boyle
    The attribution of the law relating gas pressure and volume to Boyle is contested and there are at least six other scientists who may be credited with its discovery: William Brouncker, Robert Hooke, Edme Mariotte, Henry Power, Richard Towneley and Isaac Newton. On the continent, the law has been referred to as Mariotte’s law, though Mariotte’s version was developed 14 years after Boyle’s and, it is argued, built upon Boyle’s work. The historian of science, I. B. Cohen has wryly suggested the law might be renamed as ‘the law of Power and Towneley, and of Hooke and Boyle, and – to a lesser degree – of Mariotte’.

    Charles
    It is argued that Charles’s Law should be more appropriately attributed to Joseph Gay-Lussac. In 1802, both Gay-Lussac and John Dalton published results on the thermal expansion of gases. Dalton’s apparatus was simple — a glass tube sealed at one end with a bead of mercury to indicate expansion. From this, Dalton incorrectly concluded that there was an exponential relationship between temperature and volume. Dalton’s method is considered inferior to Gay-Lussac’s approach, which used an inverted flask in a water bath. Gay-Lussac correctly proposed a direct proportionality between volume and temperature. Though Charles carried out experiments on the relationship between the volume and temperature of gases before Gay-Lussac, Charles did not publish his results, perhaps because he had not taken care to dry his gases and his results were inconsistent. However, Gay-Lussac’s acknowledgement of Charles’s unpublished work led to the relationship becoming known as Charles’s Law.

    References

    Pressure
    Properties of Matter

    The gas laws and Deflategate

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Deflategate is the name given to a controversy that arose during an American football play-off game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots in 2015. It is alleged that the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, ordered footballs to be deflated, giving an advantage to his team in rainy conditions as the ball was easier to catch and hold.

    A paper in The Physics Teacher journal investigated whether the change in pressure in the ball might be explained by changes in temperature or from evaporative cooling, rather than foul play. The authors conclude that, if the pressure of the ball was measured immediately after it was taken from the cold field to a warm locker room, a pressure drop of 1 psi might be expected due to the change in temperature. They report that evaporative cooling is unlikely to have made a significant contribution to changes in pressure due to the water-repellent coating of the ball.

    The National Football League (NFL) commissioned a report into the claims, which included contributions from a Princeton physics professor. The report concluded that the loss of air pressure was due to human intervention. Following the report, the NFL suspended Tom Brady for four games without pay and the Patriots were fined $1 million.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Putting the gas in gas laws

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    In 1981, Paul Auerbach and York Miller wrote a short article in the Western Journal of Medicine to report the discovery of a new syndrome, High Altitude Flatus Expulsion (HAFE). The pair describe observing, on a hiking trip in the San Juan Mountains, “an increase in both the volume and frequency of flatus” when they reached altitudes of over 3350 m. The scientists report that the altitude-induced eructations (flatulence) are known to hikers as ‘Rocky Mountain barking spiders’. Auerbach and Miller explain the occurrence of HAFE through Boyle’s Law – the decrease in atmospheric pressure at altitude leads to an expansion of colonic gas. Whilst they argue for the recognition of HAFE as a disorder, they counsel “that the offense is more sociologic than physiologic”.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Shower curtains suck

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    An assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts has developed a computer simulation to explain why shower curtains move towards the falling stream of water, the so-called shower curtain effect. David Schmidt’s model shows that the shower spray produces a vortex that pulls the curtain in. The shower curtain effect can also refer to the phenomenon in which objects some distance behind a shower curtain appear blurred, but, when pushed against the fabric, can be viewed clearly. Understanding the effect is significant for astronomers trying to image objects in space and for developing biomedical imaging technology.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Feline flow

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    A paper in the Rheology Bulletin has addressed the significant question of whether cats are liquids. The author, M. A. Fardin, argues that cats behave as a solid material, “like Silly Putty”, on short timescales, but that on longer timescales felines can flow to take on the shape of the container they are placed in. A methodological protocol for other researchers interested in investigating feline flow is provided for the interested reader:

    1. Bring an empty box
    2. Wait.

     

    References

    Properties of Matter

    The top of the sky

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    The Armstrong limit is defined as the altitude at which atmospheric pressure is such that water will boil at body temperature. On Earth, the Armstrong limit is between 18 and 19 km above sea level. Above the limit, the human body cannot survive in an unpressurised environment and exposed bodily fluids, such as saliva and tears, will boil away. Unprotected bodies suddenly exposed to altitudes above the Armstrong limit risk explosive decompression which may cause tearing to the lungs, due to the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the body.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Pressure perils

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    In 1967, an accident occurred in a vacuum chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre. An engineer, Jim LeBlanc, was working in an environment that simulated pressures at an altitude of 46 km when his oxygen line disconnected. The pressure in LeBlanc’s suit fell from 26 kPa to 0.7 kPa in under 10 seconds exposing him to a near vacuum. The engineer reported that his last memory before losing consciousness was the saliva evaporating from his tongue. LeBlanc was rescued by two colleagues and made a full recovery.

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Phases of mosh pits

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Researchers at Cornell University have used video footage taken at rock concerts to draw an analogy between the behaviour of heavy metal gig attendees in mosh pits and the motion of particles in gases. The authors report watching “over 10 2 videos containing footage of mosh pits” and claim that the motion of moshers is welldescribed by a two-dimensional Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. The researchers developed a simulation of the behaviour of mosh pits and argue that the crowd can exist in different states including a gas-like state (a mosh pit) and a vortex-like state (a circle pit).

    References

    Properties of Matter

    Boltzmann’s cow

    Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16

    Ludwig Boltzmann taught Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission. She was enthusiastic about his teaching, reporting: “After each lecture it seemed to us as if we had been introduced to a new and wonderful world, such was the enthusiasm that he put into what he taught.”

    Boltzmann was mercurial and Max Planck experienced a different side of him from Meitner. Planck recalled how Boltzmann responded when Ernst Zermelo, an able student of Planck’s, criticised Boltzmann’s work:

    …he answered young Zermelo in a tone of biting sarcasm, which was meant partly for me, too. This was how Boltzmann assumed that ill-tempered tone which he continued to exhibit toward me, on later occasions as well, both in his publications and in our personal correspondence.

    Whilst giving a series of lectures at Berkeley, Boltzmann bemoaned the prohibition on the sale of alcohol, reporting his “stomach rebelled” and he took to smuggling wine bottles from a shop in Oakland. He was a critic of American cuisine describing oatmeal as: “an indescribable paste on which people might fatten geese in Vienna - then again, perhaps not, since I doubt the Viennese geese would be willing to eat it.”

    Whilst living in Graz, Boltzmann decided his children needed more milk. He took the logical step of buying a cow at a market and was seen wandering the streets with the animal unsure how to get it home. To learn how to milk the cow, rather than talking to a farmer, he consulted a zoology professor.

    Given these events, it is unsurprising that one of his peers described Boltzmann as a “powerful man but childlike to the point of childishness”.

    References

    Dr Richard Brock

    Lecturer in Science Education at King’s College London.

    After teaching physics in secondary schools for eight years, Richard studied for a PhD in physics education and now teaches and conducts research at King’s College London. 

    For more stories about physics, follow Richard on Twitter:  @RBrockPhysics

    Download the full booklet and explore more stories from physics.

    IOP DOMAINS Physics CPD programme

    Energy CPD videos

    Our new set of videos gives teachers and coaches of physics a preview of the training we offer ahead of this term's live support sessions.

    Find out more