Professor Mark Miodownik, Materials Scientist, Engineer and Broadcaster tells us about his current work and why we should love our material world
You’ve recently published a paper on material stimuli that can be used as a tool to bridge the gap between designers and materials scientists. Could you tell us about it?
This work came out of a problem that we’ve had in the past. Whenever we’re designing new prototypes that are going to exist in the world then, there are two sorts of designers that we kind of interact with – the engineery type designers who look at the functionality, mechanics and electronics; and product designers who are into the emotional appeal and set the feel, the touch, the smell of the product. Often those two sets of people find it hard to talk to each other. We discovered that when we are working together we speak different languages. When you’re trying to develop new materials, you need to be able to talk to both sets of people. So the question was: Could we design a translation? This isn’t like a dictionary, rather a set of material samples which translate from one language into the other. Now we’ve got quite a big selection of different ways in which you can interact with a product designer. You can actually try and work out which are the qualities of the materials you want as well as the technical functionalities but you do it in a way that’s about interacting with sample materials.
What else are you working on at the moment?
So I’m working on lot of projects, one of which is a wearable exoskeleton. There are a lot of people that find it difficult to walk as they get older and as a result they walk less because they don’t want to be seen outside with a walking stick or they’re in a wheel chair. They get housebound and as a result of that the muscles weaken even further so the fight continues. The question is: How could you help people to be confident in walking late into life without it being an aid that makes you look like a robot. Can we help people walk but in a very discrete way? So we came up with this piece of underwear. You put these trousers underneath your clothing and that piece of garment will help you walk. It will do so in an active way. Actuators can now be integrated into materials and electronics and the idea is to have two materials. One that is able to stiffen actively around the knee to give it strength at the right point in your stride. And another that can be quickly flexible to allow you to bend your knee and to stiffen it again. This is an active garment. There are a lot of other applications to this apart from helping elderly walk. Any kind of bandage at the moment is either set in a shape or it’s completely off. As you recover from an injury and you’d like to get more and more flexible but still retain some support. So I think this whole area of electronic support and garments is going to be a big one in the future.
What is your favourite material and why?
My feeling is that materials are like our children. We make them all. They all do different things, they all have different talents and you know sometimes you want the son that’s very academic and sometimes you want the daughter who’s incredibly athletic. For me it’s not really about having a favourite material, for me it’s the fact that we are a material and that we have so many materials and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. We should really celebrate the diversity of the materials we’ve made. And that has given us not just incredible technology like cars and planes and mobile phones but also very sensile – clothes and houses. All of that is part of a material wealth that we’ve created.
Who is your science hero?
Marie Curie is a hero of mine. She had incredible intellect, amazing ability to do experiments, to find out any knowledge about the world. She is the only one to get two Nobel Prises in two different areas – physics and chemistry. Come on how good is that?
How did you decide to get involved in the field of material science?
Well, I got stabbed early on in my life. When I went to the police station, they showed me the weapon the person who stabbed me used – a tiny slither of razor blade in a piece of tape. I was amazed that such a tiny of metal could be so powerful and almost end my life. I kept looking at it and I was thinking; you really do look at things very differently when you’ve had a close call. I started wondering: How is it possible something that small can be so dangerous? But the same slither of plastic or paper are not as powerful. But why not? What is it inside the material that is making this metal so strong, stiff and sharp? And those questions are not easy to answer. But no one really answered them very satisfactory when I was a kid because most people didn’t know, even teachers at school didn’t know.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and how have you applied that to your scientific career so far?
About 15 years ago, I was giving talks at conferences and they were quite unusual talks. They were talks that were not what a junior academic should be giving according to most of my colleagues. I got a lot of people saying to me: you shouldn’t be so broad and should consider the cultural side of the materials as well as the technical side less – and that’s not what conferences are for. So I guess the best piece of advice came from a colleague of mine that just said: Ignore them! You need to do what you need to do and go for it. Do what you’re passionate about. That’s definitely the best piece of advice I’ve been given.