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century of science theme

Materials That Made Us

It's the stuff that makes airplanes light enough to soar through the air.

It's also the stuff that makes space exploration possible and the stuff that makes re-entry into Earth possible for astronauts despite reaching temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It makes all our gadgets—iPhones, Bluetooth, WiFi—possible. It's in the very keys used to type these words on a screen so you can now read them on another screen.

What is it? Materials! We are living in a material world, and whether you know it or not, you just might be a material girl (or boy! Or non-binary human!)

What is a "material"? Experts define a material as any substance "having properties that make them useful in machines, structures, devices and products." So ... pretty much anything you touch throughout the day contains "materials."

In its Materials That Made Us theme, Science News' Century of Science dives into our material world. Enabling driving, flying, space travel and even making pooping indoors a bit more pleasant, materials have transformed a lot in the last 100 years.

century of science theme

Materials That Made Us

From synthetic ice cream to bionics, Science News mines materials history.

Materials are on full display throughout the Museum of Science and Industry, and one material—plastic—is the star in our new temporary exhibition, The Art of the Brick. The colorful LEGO® bricks used in artist Nathan Sawaya's sculptures evolved from the first fully synthetic plastic invented in 1907. Called "Bakelite," it was accidentally discovered by an engineer trying to find a better way to insulate electric cables.

The introduction of Bakelite—shiny, modern, almost magic-looking—transformed the world. With mass-produced plastic products ranging from toasters to telephones, hairbrushes to brightly colored building bricks that snap together with ease, the good life was now available on the cheap. To this day, plastics cover our world. Just try going a day without touching them!

temporary exhibition

The Art of the Brick

The world's largest display of LEGO® art is at MSI for a limited time.

But materials come in all shapes, sizes and, well, material. While plastics changed our daily living, another material transformed how we move: fuel.

The year was 1940, and the Battle of Britain was in its early days. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, and the British Royal Air Force were locked in battles a mile above the ground. The German Stukas were made for speed and dive-bombing, having already shown off their ability to outrun British Spitfires in battles in France, but this time things were a bit different.

In the Spitfire fuel tank rested the first high-octane fuel. A French mechanical engineer discovered the process of “catalytic cracking.” Catalytic cracking makes the combustion of fuel easier, giving engines more power and faster speeds. With catalytic cracking, the Spitfires could now outmaneuver the Stukas and gave the British a much-needed advantage.

permanent exhibition

Spitfire and Stuka

See both of these fearsome aircraft in the Transportation Gallery.

Catalytic cracking still produces most of the fuel that vehicles use today, but it's now tag-teamed with another materials-inspired process, catalytic converting. Catalytic cracking releases lots of pollutants and by the 1960s, when cars and highways began to stretch across the U.S., smog was everywhere. Catalytic converting captures those pollutants rather than releasing them into the air. With the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, every vehicle needed to have a catalytic converter, decreasing the amount of pollutants cars dump into the air.

The story of materials throughout the last 100 years resembles If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. We develop a new material. That material has unintended side effects. We make a new material to deal with the side effects.

Mark Jones, a chemist and member of the American Chemical Society said, "The entire history of chemistry is 'Hey, look what I can do! Darn, I wish I hadn't done it that way! But I have another way I can do it.' And that keeps us kind of moving forward."

msi amenities

Mold-a-Ramas

Of course, there may be some who feel materials science peaked with these.

Materials have brought innovations that have made our modern world possible. They've also left their traces all over, from plastics in the ocean to the pollutants that escape catalytic converters. But it's also the innovations in new materials that will help us tackle the problems we face now.

Plastics that breakdown naturally. Carbon dioxide converted into jet fuel. Bionic leaves that produce energy, just like real leaves.

What might the next century of materials innovations bring?