Saturday, June 20, 2009

The secret order of things

At the FT, George Pendle has a truly delightful piece on Mark Miodownik and his Materials Library (site registration required):
The Materials Library has no star chamber through which its materials must pass for inclusion. Other than those Miodownik and his staff track down themselves, each week they are sent a handful of parcels and envelopes holding the weird and wonderful. One week they were sent a lump of floating concrete. Another week, a dress made of parachute silk floated in. Through fellowships and grants from Nesta, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and a host of other acronyms, Miodownik keeps his library alive. He is adamant about not commercialising it. “It’s such a narrow way of looking at materials. We don’t want to enslave them, we want to nurture them.”

And, half-joking: “Ask not what materials can do for you, but what you can do for materials.”

Commercialising would also mean streamlining. Miodownik estimates that barely 5 per cent of the materials in his library are also in Material ConneXion’s. “The Materials Library has a big tub of mercury in it,” he explains. “Now you’re never going to specify a product with mercury in it. It’s toxic. In fact everyone’s trying to get rid of mercury. But it should exist in a materials library, because it may give you an idea about something, it may embody some philosophical thought. It’s a physical embodiment of something in an Aristotelian way.

“I really don’t think [utility] is a criteria for having things in a university. The world is run by people who want things to be ‘useful’ and that’s great, but universities should be these places of awe and craziness – they shouldn’t be the ‘real’ world.”

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