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Everyday Miracles

Programme Run: 2 X 60 Minutes
Production: BBC
First Transmitted: 2014 HD available

 

Professor Mark Miodownik uncovers the fascinating science behind everyday objects, both in the home (episode one), and away from home in the wider world (episode two). Mark’s contention is that much of the comfort, excitement and pleasure on offer in the modern world is a result of the inspiring collision between innovative new materials, clever design and the genius of mass production. The everyday miracles that have resulted have transformed our lives.

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Over the last hundred years or so, our lives have changed dramatically. In just two or three generations ordinary people’s homes have been transformed into pleasure palaces – filled with comfortable sofas, electronic gadgets with light and heat on tap. It’s a wonder that we ever leave our homes – but when we do, cars & bicycles carry us safely about on a comprehensively paved road network, aircraft routinely pluck us from one side of the world and deposit us on the other.

These extraordinary advances are thanks to advances in metals, composites, polymers, ceramics – in short, stuff – and our ability to use it to design new products, and then mass produce them. These advances have effectively democratised higher standards of living.

This series is the story of Everyday Miracles – the objects that define modern life, bringing us comfort, pleasure and power. Fascinating in their own right, none of them would be possible were it not for advances in the materials from which they’re made. From the liberating razor blade to the accident that gave us foam rubber, from the plywood that made a world beating aircraft and groovy furniture to exploding glass (a major contribution to road safety). Everyday Miracles explores the stories behind the everyday stuff of life. Be it on the road or during explosive demonstrations in the lab, Mark Miodownik sheds new light on the everyday and the mundane, revealing it to be anything but.

 

Episode One – Home

Today, we live like kings and queens! Our homes are pleasure palaces, filled with comfortable furniture and countless electronic gadgets. There is light and heat at the touch of a button, and the world is brought to us through television, radio and the web. These modern miracles mean that we have all amassed a dazzling array of stuff – a collection of metals, plastics, liquid crystals, plastics and ceramics, all assembled in very precise ways.

Mark begins by looking at foam rubber. It’s everywhere.Whatever you’re sitting on, there’s almost certainly foam involved. As Mark discovers on a visit to a factory, there’s seemingly no limit to foam’s versatility.

Even airline meal trays are made from foam. In the lab, Mark shows how foam was discovered – by mistake – in the 1930s.

The razor blade was invented by King Camp Gillette in 1901, who claimed that in so doing he had saved the US economy $4.5m per year; the time saved by by men not having to visit the barber’s shop. But he couldn’t have done it without a new mass production technique, and an insight into how to harden steel.

Next he moves on to look at composite materials, because when it comes to materials, two things are very often far better than one. Composites have hugely improved our lot. Concrete reinforced with steel has transformed what architects can do with space and light –– and plywood’s strength and versatility has improved the scope of the furniture designer and even brought us record breaking aircraft.

Plastic is perhaps the single most important material of the 20th century. It’s ubiquity is down to its versitility. The fact that it takes many forms and can be moulded to take many more .makes it the ultimate material for mass production, as Mark discovers on a visit to a German toy factory. Back in the lab, Mark reminds us that plastic is nowadays something that even clothes us, showing us how nylon is made, before visiting a Derbyshire hosiery factory to show us how nylon and another synthetic fibre elastane (‘Lycra’) have transformed the textiles industry.

 

Episode Two – Away

Understanding materials produced everyday miracles that have transformed our lives at home, but they’ve also had a huge impact on our ability to get around and explore our planet – and even our universe.

We think of the bicycle as a basic form of transport – so simple that it’s been around forever. But as Mark reveals, the bicycle was a great idea waiting for the right materials to come along. The bicycle was a dead loss until 1888 when reliable steel production and the ability to make seamless steel tubing collided with pneumatic tyres. For the first time, bicycles were light and comfortable and easy to use by everyone.

Hot on the heels of the bike came the car – but travelling at speed was extremely uncomfortable. Thank goodness then for glass to shield you from the wind. But glass’s tendency to shatter into dagger like shards was for from ideal. In the lab, Mark shows us ‘Prince Rupert’s Drops’ – exploding droplets of glass which hold the key to safety glass, and happier motoring. Glass lenses and ‘pyrex’ (borosilicate glass) backed reflector mirrors in telescopes have given us an accurate appreciation of scale, from discovering microbes in the water,

to measuring the size of the universe.

Mark meets a teenage para-athlete to discover how carbon fibre composites have transformed the lot of amputees like him – not just on the track, but across the board in prosthetics. He shows why carbon fibre has become the “go to” material whenever weight, strength and flexibility are critical factors in the performance of a product.

3D printing is something Mark’s very familiar with – a techique often used by his students. But what he discovers when he meets Kevin Shakesheff at Nottingham University is that this technology is being developed to print human body parts – eventually, perhaps whole organs.

Finally Mark visits the Firth of Forth outside Edinburgh, to see how our understanding of materials has impacted on civil engineering projects like bridge building. At the site of the new Forth crossing, Mark discovers how the new bridge’s design and construction has moved on from the that of the previous two.

 


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