2017-09-10 4 min read


Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of The Prepared. I'm Deb Chachra, this week's guest writer, and as Spencer mentioned in his introduction last week, I’m a professor—I'm on the faculty of Olin College of Engineering, which was founded to help rethink engineering education, with a strong emphasis on design and student-centered learning. My technical background is in materials science, and I have a long-standing interest in infrastructure. Put another way, my interests lie in a whole host of fields that surround manufacturingmaterials, design, infrastructure, and engineering educationrather than manufacturing (and machines) per se. So I pay attention to the aluminum alloys and composites that make up airplanes, and to the complex global-scale systems that keep airliners criss-crossing our skies, but I’m not much of a planespotter.                                                                            At the systems level, I’ve loved Tim Carmody’s phrase ‘the systemic sublime’ for writing that seeks to ‘both demystify and re-enchant the world,’ eliciting awe and admiration for the incredible systems of logistics in which we are prosaically and invisibly embedded. Tim considers Neal Stephenson’s “Mother Earth, Mother Board” to be the ur-example of the genre, but some other examples include this photoset inside UPS’s massive sorting facility, or where oil rigs go to die, or Nicola Twilley’s amazing research on the ‘coldscape’, the geographies of artificial refrigeration that most food consumed in the US passes through, Thomas Thwaites’ The Toaster Project, his attempt to build a toaster from scratch, and the secret history of Southern California's pink donut box. But the essence of the systemic sublime is that these systems are just as complex and profound for something as prosaic as a cup of coffee as they are for a spacecraft.

Last December, an icy hike up a mountain in New Hampshire prompted me to get a pair of microspikes, lightweight crampons that consist of an armature of metal spikes and chains on a rubbery frame that can be pulled on over hiking boots (and one of the fastest examples of genericide I've observed). They’re conceptually similar to galoshes-as-overshoes, but with one important difference—most petroleum-based rubbers become stiff and brittle at sub-freezing temperatures, so they don’t really work well in snow and ice. Microspikes are only possible because of the increasing availability of silicone-based rubbers, which remain elastic at much lower temperatures. And also higher ones—silicone rubber has been quietly transforming kitchen utensils over the last decade or so. Sometimes the switch to food-safe silicone rubber meant similar products with somewhat improved properties, like heatproof rubber spatulas or washable oven mitts (having stuck my thumbs into lasagna a few times, these were very welcome). More interesting, of course, are the new designs silicone rubber makes possible, like colanders that collapse for storage or the insulated wire that connects my probe thermometer to its digital display outside the oven (and which requires a surprising amount of care to avoid touching—after a lifetime of metals and ceramics, it’s hard to remember that something soft and flexible can still be hot enough to burn).

My other favorite example of watching a new material get traction is the transition of polyester fabrics from their clammy and plasticky start in the 70s, to the soft, strong, wicking fabric that’s now a staple of outdoor wear. I still remember my first polyester fleece, a headband that I was given for Christmas sometime in the mid-1990s (it was too expensive to buy for myself on a grad student salary), when I was living in Toronto. I wore it for a winter training run the next day, and when I came home and took it off my delightfully warm ears, I was startled to see that its outside was beaded with moisture, perspiration that had been transported away from my skin. Now, of course, I have a closetful of polyester workout tops and fleecy winter gear. (I joke that it’s not an accident that rainy Seattle’s ascension as a technology hub coincided with the invention of Gore-Tex and Polartec.)

The central tenet of materials science is that the material itself, the processing methods used, and the resultant properties are all inextricably connected, and the spread of silicone rubber and polyester microfiber clearly demonstrates the logical extension of this: while sometimes new materials are straight replacements because they're cheaper or more durable (as in the millennia-long history of sequins, which went from being made from precious metals to gelatin to aluminized plastic), they can also open the door to fundamentally new designs. Quite often when this happens, we don’t notice the materials, much less the manufacturing techniques—sometimes, as in the case of the toughened Gorilla Glass used for modern smartphones, we literally look straight through the enabling technologies. So we end up with a spread—from the range of different characteristics and affordances when new materials are used to make the same product, to new products that simply wouldn't be possible without the specific combinations of properties that those new materials—and new manufacturing techniques—can offer.

If you’d like to read more by me, I wrote a piece for the Atlantic about how infrastructure and technosocial systems are how we care for each other at scale (and here’s an earlier, related editorial on the problems with relying on charity that I wrote for the Guardian). As part of the Situated Systems research fellowship at Autodesk’s Pier 9 facility last year, I wrote paired essays about why we use gold for currency but not seashells, and about the woman who figured out why World War II Liberty Ships were cracking in half in the North Atlantic. I talked to Atlas Obscura about the materials that define the Anthropocene. And in keeping with The Prepared’s commitment to inclusivity, I’ll also point to my editorial in Nature on recognizing and addressing gender bias. Finally, I write an occasional newsletter, Metafoundry.

Thanks to Spencer for the opportunity to write here, and thanks for reading.

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