Stories from physics 5: properties of matter

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.

So, let me tell you some stories from physics…

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