Strange World of Materials

Article excerpt

Byline: Joseph Szadkowski, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Materials science, or the study of stuff, takes chemists, biologists and physicists on a journey of discovery and invention in which they examine and sometimes try to enhance the 300,000 substances that make up the environment in which we live.

A 30-year-old society concerned with materials and their technological importance has put together a cyber stop to promote a traveling, interactive exhibit and also acts as the perfect online introduction into the world of stuff.

Strange Matter

Site address: www.strangematterexhibit.com

Creator: The Materials Research Society, a nonprofit scientific association in Pittsburgh, and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto developed the site with funding provided by the National Science Foundation, Alcan Inc., Dow Chemical Co., Ford Motor Co. and the 3M Foundation.

Creator quotable: "We created this site because kids are naturally curious and get excited by doing science - they are scientists in their own right, they always want to know how things work," says Shenda Baker, Strange Matter Project chairwoman.

"With the Strange Matter Web site, kids get to explore materials they see all the time. Created by practicing scientists and educators, the site's science is presented in an interactive and exciting format that is fun and educational for anyone who should land on the site, young or old."

Word from the Webwise: Four overexcited teenagers introduce visitors to fun with materials science in a photo-realistic, animated environment featuring an overload of I-didn't-know-that facts, cartoony demonstrations and video nuggets from some of the folks in the field.

Each teen hosts a primary section that cleverly relates to an important part of the science - Zoom! (structure), Materials Smackdown (properties), The Transformer (processing) and Change-the-World Challenge (performance) - with each offering several areas of educational opportunities that touch upon the likes of polymers, composites, metals, biomaterial and semiconductors.

I most enjoyed Materials Smackdown, a wrestling challenge in which a visitor reviews four matches highlighting the tenacity of such luminaries as the Incredible Bulk (polystyrene) vs. Mr. Cheese (mozzarella) and Plastica (acrylic) vs. the Crystal Crusader (glass) as they are crushed side by side.

The events, which sound like something David Letterman might come up with, lead to teaching students about foam, the origins of material strength at the molecular level, and the cool science of cracks, and presents visitors with at-home experiments, such as making plastic and a foamy fire extinguisher.

This section featured the strangest revelation of the site. During World War II, Geoffrey Pyke invented for the Allies a durable form of ice called pykrete that contained wood pulp. …