Prof Mark Miodownik
Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist, broadcaster and writer. He is a professor at the University College London and is a director at the Institute of Making. In 2010 he delivered the Royal Institutions Christmas Lectures. He is also a regular science broadcaster in the UK fronting a number of science documentaries and is a series regular on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club. In 2013 he released his first book ‘Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World’.
I think I kind of feel that the world is just more interesting if you’re open to doubting everything
On becoming interested in science
I mean, I had a Dad, I do have a Dad. I have a Dad. He’s a scientist, so my earliest memories of realising that he’s a scientist and that he would bring home things like concentrated hydrosulphuric acid, and the bottle, it said ‘Danger’ and it had a red top and it was glassware and then he would make up these kind of weird concoctions in the cellar and that’s great, you know, there is no more fascinating thing to a seven year old than that kind of activity.
I had no idea that that was science, it was just interesting.
And I had three older brothers, who beat the crap out of me all the time and, um, it turns out that to be a scientist you have to be very humble and people are constantly trying to disprove you. Whatever area of science you are in there’s about a thousand other people going, ‘That experiment that you did. It’s wrong. And I’ll tell you why’. And you have to have a really thick skin to be able to cope with this ego fest that is science and having three older brothers, that really kind of gets you into it. And I think it’s actually probably pathological I’m in science, I like kind of being crushed by other people’s egos and surviving.
On material sciences as a branch of science
Materials science is a synthesis subject rather than a reductive subject. So, in a sense, physicists, they say, ‘Why does this work? I’ll try and work out what inside it does and then I’ll try and work out what does that and that and that and that and they end up as atoms and then they end up as quarks and they end up as the Higgs boson, they eventually work their way down. Materials science does the opposite. If I’ve got something, that does something, like I’ve got my clothes and they feel a certain way or I have a bridge and it has a certain strength, where does that strength come from? What bits of science do I have to put together to understand the strength of that object or the softness of that object or the chemical resistance of that object or its electrical properties? And so you’re constantly having to build up different blocks of our knowledge about a material and put them all together, and that’s what; the world that we live in is the world where they’re all, like, things have multiple properties, they have multiple characteristics. They are full of chemical, biological, physical stuff and we have to put it all together to understand the whole material.
So in a sense, we take all these bits that the chemists, and the physicists have worked out, and the biologists actually, there’s quite a lot of biology in it, and put it together into an understanding of the world. Everything is made of something and if you don’t understand that something, at the various different scales and put it all together then bridges fall down, you know, spaceships blow up, ah, I mean, famously right, the shuttle disaster was caused by a bit of foam that we didn’t really understand, although some people think they did understand but they ignored it, but again it’s like, how can something as big as a space ship blow up because of a small thing? Well, actually, that’s just true of life in general and of the world. And so putting that all together is materials science.
People call it material science when you’re trying to work out how it all fits together and understand something like superconductivity. People call it materials engineering and then engineering when you’re making an object in the world. You’re making an engine, so of course they are, you can’t make anything without the material science. The ages of civilisation are named after materials because they are the building blocks of civilisation. The Stone Age, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steel Age. So engineering and materials are absolutely linked but it isn’t just engineering that’s linked. It’s design, it’s architecture, it’s, ah, cooking! You know, it’s all materials, they just happen to be edible materials.
It’s been an obsession all my life, and that’s about scale. And the thing is people kind of feel like the world is just this world and they’ve got the hang of how it works without having to know the equations. You know that gravity works in a certain way, you don’t jump off a building, but not because you’ve calculated that you’ll die but because you just know that empirically that you jumped off smaller things and you got hurt more and more and more (as you went up) and you went to hospital a couple of times, in my case, and you think, ‘Well, ok, empirically, I’m willing to believe the equations that I would splat’. And then someone says to you, ‘Yeah, but if you dropped your hamster off a building that will survive’, and you’re like, ‘Really?’ And you don’t have to take that on trust. You can actually do the calculations and you shouldn’t probably do the experiment either, it’d be very cruel. And those sorts of things make me smile. And then it makes me even more smile- can you more smile? Anyway, it does, when you’re having breakfast and there’s some ants attacking you, outside, first summer day, some ants crawl over, and you ping them and the person you’re having breakfast with says, ‘That’s really cruel. You just pinged that ant, it’s probably died!’ And I go, ‘No it hasn’t. It could easily survive that fall and that force. And I can prove it to you.’ Those things make me happy.
On current research
I’ve got quite a number of different projects, one of which is to create a wearable exoskeleton and this is a very good example of materials science is such a synthesis subject because we’re working with chemists too, so the idea of a wearable exoskeleton is lots of people get either old or they get injured and end up in wheelchairs. About two million people in the UK. Getting them out of their wheelchair would have massive benefits for them. The world is basically, you know, it has stairs in it and is run for the able bodied, being in a wheelchair is really difficult. And also once you’re in a wheelchair for a certain amount of time your legs whither away and so it’s much harder to get around.
So if you have an accident, or you’re getting old, the best thing is to keep you mobile. And the way we think that’s going to happen in the future is you’re going to wear a suit underneath your clothes like underwear, long johns, and those will support your knees, support your calves at the moment you’re making a step, at the moment that one of them needs support it’ll stiffen up and when you’re bending it, it will loosen. So imagine around you, you have this very, very supportive thing which maybe supports your elbow, maybe supports your knee and of course that’s materials but it has to have a stiffening aspect which can respond on an electrical signal. So you need to have sensors that know you’re about to bend your knee, you need to have these stiffeners called actuators which are gonna stiffen and then they’re going to relax later. So you’ve stopped bending your knee and now you’re walking onto something else. So sensors to actuators to wearing a piece of clothing that you then need to be able to wash, all these things have to come together, that’s what I mean about synthesis. And we’re working with chemists to cease the actuators, biomechanisists to understand the knee and the elbow and the hips, um, so we’re working with hospitals, we’re working with physicists and engineers to get all of it to come together to one piece of clothing.
So one of the interesting things about doing something like that is you have to work with patients and you have to work with people who, at the moment, have to specify other things, because we don’t have a wearable exoskeleton and then you realise that there are some things, some avenues of science or engineering that even if they look promising are never going to work with those patients. It’s got to be comfortable, it’s got to have a certain look and feel. So one of the things we’re doing is working with designers upfront to understand the human side of these technologies. And so now, it turns out, that the actuators we have to sort of build from scratch, the ones that will work are; so, you can’t use shape-memory alloys which lots of people will know about, but they require a switching temperature of 70 degrees which is not going to work close to the body! So, um, we’ve got to have a room temperature one so that immediately sparks off a piece of science that has to be done which will then feed back into the design.
So we’ve got three years to get a workable prototype up and running and that’s essentially not going to be a whole suit but it’s going to be a patch of material which can do what we just said. Then, a few years later hopefully, we’ll have a full scale prototype. A few years later, so you’re talking about ten years, realistically, we’d have a fully working exoskeleton for you or for me to wear. And probably twenty years before it can displace the wheelchair.
On the difficulties of conveying the time science takes
I actually don’t think it’s a problem. I think people, if you talk to people on the street, and I do talk to a lot of people in the public, they totally buy the idea that they want universities to have people in it, like me, doing stuff like this. They would totally, you know, if you said to them, ‘Would you vote for that’, they’d say, ‘Yeah’, most of them, um, I think it’s actually the politicians who need persuading. And that’s funny. Especially The Treasury. The Treasury are very, very, very goal orientated to the next economic cycle, or in fact the next voting cycle and that is a problem for science. Science has to be long term. Engineering has to be long term. They both have to look quite far ahead and to have a government system that doesn’t do that – so for instance we should be planning energy security long term, we’re not. We should be planning health security long term, we’re not. We’re doing all this short term stuff and actually, that’s, that’s not good.
On communicating science
Well I felt like, two reasons, one is, I do this work, I advertise for people to work with me, most of the people who want to work with me are not from the UK and that’s kind of weird because, hold on, aren’t we – this is a nation of innovators and scientists and suddenly, hold on a minute, they’re not coming? So that annoyed me and I was thinking, ‘Why aren’t our own – we had loads of bright people come from all over the world to work with us so why wouldn’t the British people do it?’ And I felt it was a cultural issue about the cultural status of science and engineering and I wanted to do something about that. So it’s not that I don’t think there are enough people, there are tonnes of bright people that come and work with us, but I kind of want to change the way that British people feel about science and engineering and therefore, hopefully, that they will take over from us, you know, in twenty years time I’ll retire, and it doesn’t have to be a British person but there needs to be enough British people doing that otherwise we’ll just be, it won’t be part of our fundamental culture anymore and since we were so instrumental in developing it, it seems madness, it’s who we are. So I thought, ‘That’s a problem’ and I wanted to do something about it and I looked at it and I thought, ‘You know what, you’ve just gotta get out there and talk to people about it’. And so I did schools talks and I did festivals and I would just talk to anyone about what I was doing! And, um, that’s just snowballed. Essentially there aren’t enough people doing it for the number of slots there are to be done in the media. So, you know, I got rung up today to go onto Newsnight because, why, because there aren’t that many people they can phone up who will actually sort of change their evening activities and, actually, you know, go out there and talk.
On embracing doubt
I think I kind of feel that the world is just more interesting if you’re open to doubting everything that you see and that’s what science does at it’s very most fundamental level is just saying, ‘Are you sure? I’m not sure that’s true’. And it doesn’t matter how many people in the world say that it’s true, a true scientist always doubts it a little bit. I’m really not a very certain person, I’m always umming and erring and I guess I went into science because I kind of, so for instance, flying in an aeroplane right? I know how it works, I’m an engineer, I kind of know the mathematics of it quite well and I understand the principles and yet I get on a plane and I think, ‘No. This isn’t going to – Have you seen how many people are on this plane?! And then, like, it takes off and I go, ‘Whoa’ and there is this disconnect between my theoretical knowledge, my certainty if you like, my scientific certainty, and the experience and that’s what’s so interesting isn’t it? I mean that is, ultimately, why science is so interesting.
I’ve never been of the kind of scientists who thinks we have all the answers. I think we have all the questions, which I’m rather proud of, but I’ve got a feeling that about 99% of the questions we’ve got up our sleeves are not going to be answered in my lifetime, and maybe never, and that’s a little bit disappointing. It creeps into your psyche that your, you know when your little nephews are around and they’re like, ‘Why does this work’ and then you were like, ‘I am the purveyor of knowledge and I can tell you that mass exists’. But then you might’ve gone, ‘Oh, well, does it really,’ yeah, so I feel like science is a crutch with a very serious flaw in it which keeps creaking but hopefully it’ll hold me up in my life!
I do try and explain this to people who don’t quite get it. They say, ‘Oh the moon landings were faked’ and I’m like, ‘No. I can tell you lots of reasons why they’re not faked but the main reason they’re not faked is anyone, any scientists, that could prove it would get so much kudos’. The whole system’s set up to expose those things. And so the person who exposed it would be very famous and very valued in the community so it’s this weird thing where if someone does prove you’re wrong, first of all you’re really upset, but then you’re kind of, as you say, glad that science works and that they’ve found out another piece of data that doesn’t quite work.