Thanks to materials science, the phrase "Bigger is Better" is going the way of the dodo bird. Computers that once filled entire rooms, now rest pleasantly on our laps and phones that were tethered to the wall, now live comfortably in our pockets. It's all the result of people learning to work with materials on an increasingly smaller scale.

But portability isn't the only advantage of Small. In "Making Stuff: Smaller" we're exploring what becomes possible when the barrier of "too small to work with" is broken. For example, in medicine the ability to work with materials on a small scale is providing new and less invasive solutions to various medical conditions.

In the not too distant past, if a patient was suffering from a disease of the gastrointestinal tract, the only way to take a look inside the small intestine was through invasive methods. A patient would have to be sedated and a long tube called an endoscope would be inserted into the digestive tract to look for abnormalities. Now, thanks to Given Imaging's "PillCam® video capsule" a vitamin-sized capsule containing a small camera that's ingestible, visualization of abdominal disorders is far more pleasant!
(above: The PillCam Capsule is about the size of a vitamin and allows for non-invasive viewing of the GI tract. Photos Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions and Given Imaging)
A patient simply swallows the capsule and over a period of about eight hours it passes through the entire GI tract, taking two pictures per second (more than 50,000 images per procedure!). These pictures are transmitted to a data recorder the patient wears on their waist. It's a revolutionary system giving physicians the view inside the body they need to make their diagnosis, while allowing the patient to go about their business, undisturbed.

It's hard to believe, but there are even smaller medical technologies on the horizon that will...
The MAKING STUFF crew has been busy the past couple of months and things are only getting busier. We've steadily been shooting different scenes for our first hour-long episode "Stronger" and have begun shooting some of the second episode, "Smaller."

"Stronger" has brought host David Pogue and our crew at Powderhouse Productions to some exciting locations.  We shot on the USS Stennis, a Navy aircraft carrier, to get up close and personal with "arresting cables," the steel cables that make landing a plane on the ship's short runway possible.
Pogue on Carrier edit.jpgDP_arresting_cable.jpg
(Photos Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions - Left: David Pogue on deck. Right: An arresting cable stops a landing plane to a halt.)

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge MA, we visited "Strobe Alley" which is dedicated to David Pogue's great uncle Harold Edgerton, a pioneer in the art of high-speed photography. There, we got a slow motion look at how materials break when impacted by a 22-caliber bullet. We tested different steels as well as aluminum, wood, ceramic, and I personally had the pleasure of hurling a water filled polymer (a water balloon) at David Pogue's head (in the name of science, of course.)
(Photos Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions - Left: Slow motion bullet impact. Right: David Pogue gets hit with a water balloon)
Next, we took a trip down to Richmond VA to visit the DuPont company. There, David learned about Kevlar...

DSCN0404.jpgOur next shoot for the Materials Science mini series "Making Stuff" brought us to the annual fall meeting of the Materials Research Society (MRS), our partner in creating "Making Stuff." As their website states, they are "an organization of materials researchers from academia, industry, and government that promotes communication for the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research to improve the quality of life." This annual meeting is where the who's who of the Materials Science world come to rub elbows, spread their knowledge and share the enthusiasm they have for their field. Our host David Pogue hit the floor of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston ready to tackle some tough questions. Or more accurately, some stiff questions.

DSCN0444.jpgYou see, when it comes to materials, most people's idea of what "strength" means is inaccurate. Our expert on material strength, Mark Eberhart explains...

In casual conversation the word "strong" has multiple meanings, most of which are quite different from what a scientist means when using this word.  For example, upon seeing bullets bounce off a sheet of steel, we might describe the steel as strong.  A rock climber might be thankful for the strong rope that brought her to a stop after a thirty-foot fall. And, a builder might represent an I-beam as strong because it bends immeasurably when supporting an entire building.  Actually, none of the materials in these examples is necessarily strong...
At least not at Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas.
There, they're baking up carbon nanotubes--microscopic black tubes that are about 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair! For those of you thinking, "carbon nano what?", here's a quick description: a carbon nanotube is an extremely thin cylinder of carbon whose structure gives it spectacular mechanical properties, including high strength and toughness. The development of this material could one day open the door to a whole new breed of strong materials, including stronger bridge suspension cables, battle jackets, concrete, fire protection and maybe even a space elevator. 
DavidandSci.jpgRecently our crew for the upcoming Materials Science mini series "Making Stuff" and host David Pogue paid NanoTech Institute a visit for a closer look at these tiny wonders. At the Institute, Dr. Ray Baughman and his colleagues are researching multiple projects in the field of nanotechnology including nanostructured hybrid composite membranes for fuel cells, carbon nanotube fiber supercapacitors, and highly energy efficient, low-voltage, organic light emitting devices. We focused on two of his incredible projects: the Spinning of Carbon Nanotube Composite Fibers and Carbon Nanotube Artificial Muscles.


When Materials Fail...

One day about two months ago I came in to work and was told, "We think we might want to have David Pogue and a materials scientist ride in the back seat of a car at a demolition derby. The idea is to demonstrate how materials fail, but in an interesting setting. Find us a derby." I spent roughly the next two weeks calling up every racetrack, arena and state fair across the nation that was holding a derby before the end of the season. Some of the responses I received were...

Cage.jpg"We're going to pass on this, it would be too high a liability on our part...."

"You wanna put a guy in the back of a derby car?! I dunno man, them's some hard hittin'!!..."

"I hope you have some serious life insurance on this feller..."

and simply,
"No Way!"

Out of over a dozen events, three got back to me with a "yes," and only one told me right off the bat, "Absolutely! We'll give you whatever you need!" That open invitation came from Outlaw Motor Speedway in Muskogee Oklahoma. With that, David and our crew were off to see first hand just how drastically ordinary materials can fail...


Stuff! It's all around us. The metals, plastics, glass, fibers and other materials that make up our homes, our cars, our electronics, our everything! Most of the time we accept this stuff for what it is and don't give it another thought. But not David Pogue. 

David is a New York Times personal technology columnist and CBS news correspondent who wants to know, just what is all of our stuff made of? How strong can materials get? On how small of a scale can we work with them? How clean can we get our technology? And how smart can a material become? From the first man to craft a tool using a rock, to the future of robots so small they'll navigate your blood stream, we'll be following David as he searches for the stories behind the materials that make up our world in this four-part program set to air in the fall of 2010 winter of 2011. 

I'm Dan Parsons, a production assistant on the Making Stuff crew. So far in production we've locked down the treatment for one of the four episodes, titled "Strong, Stronger, Strongest" and should have the second, "Small Smaller Smallest" complete soon. We've lined up some interesting adventures for our host including trips to a demolition derby, an active Navy aircraft carrier, a steel mill, a diamond cutter and to MIT for a slow-motion look at exactly how things break. There's still a long road ahead of us, so keep checking back as production continues for an inside look behind the production of Making Stuff!

Publicist's Note: MAKING STUFF: Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner, Smarter will premiere Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9pm ET/PT on PBS

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons is a recent graduate from Fitchburg State College where he majored in Communications Media, focusing on Video Production. After interning with Powderhouse Productions he has been hired as a production assistant for the NOVA material science documentary “Stuff.” He’s excited to be working on the project and looks forward to sharing a look behind the scenes through this blog.

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