Muscle-wire, Aerogel, and the Library of Water

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March 22, 2018 by libroshombre

“Mahabharata;” at 90,000 verses, is the “single longest poem in the world.” That’s from one of several library books that led to reflecting upon the symbiosis, the “mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups,” between libraries and booksellers. “God’s Generals: The Military Lives of Moses, the Buddha & Muhammad,” is by Richard Gabriel, an accredited military historian whose straight-forward description of the military aspects of those three important religious figures included interesting asides. A librarian has to perk up when Gabriel notes that ancient Egyptians referred to their libraries as “Houses of Life.” Their libraries were also scriptoriums, schools, temples, and administrative centers, but “Houses of Light” still seems to capture the spirit of the American free public library.

Mark Miodownik’s “Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World” is another library book spurring thoughts of library-bookseller symbiosis. A friend recommended Stuff Matters while dining at Raven Landing, across the street from Noel Wien Library. So I hithered there, borrowed it, found it immediately enjoyable, and faced with a stack of books already awaiting reading, bought my own copy. This isn’t a rare occurrence, as any bookstore proprietor will attest, for library users are typically book buyers as well.

In “Stuff Matters” I learned about futuristic materials like muscle wire, “very thin metallic wire” that remembers its structure even after being bent up, and reassumes its original shape when heated, and self-healing concrete that’s infused with “dormant bacteria and a food source, starch, embedded in the concrete. When a crack appears in the concrete, water seeps in and reactivates the bacteria. After they awaken, the bacteria eat their packed lunch and then conveniently excrete calcite, which heals the crack.”

My space-age imagination was aroused by Miodownik’s mention of aerogel, which is “essentially a glass foam” comprised of “99.8% air, making it the world’s lightest solid.” Aerogel panels were used on NASA’s Project Stardust spacecraft that flew by comet Wild 2 to collect space dust. Aerogel is ideal for glomming onto cosmic dust because “this ultrafine foam can gradually decelerate and capture dust particles in pristine condition.” The spacecraft released a capsule containing the dust samples when flying by Earth in 2006. Other NASA programs have collected cosmic dust since 1981, and there’s a library of samples at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where, like all good library materials, the dust has been catalogued and stored for researchers to utilize.

The librarian in me was inflamed by reading about the “Institute of Making” Miodownik helped found at University College London. It contains a “library of more than a thousand materials [that] represent the ingredients that built our world … You could rebuild our civilization from the contents of this library, and destroy it, too.” You’ll also find self-healing concrete and aerogel in its collection. The Institute of Making is a fascinating concept, but, like “Houses of Light,” it’s a marvelous metaphor for what modern libraries are all about: encapsulations of significant parts of the human experience.

The world teems with unusual libraries. Take Britain’s Kennel Club Library, with rare dog books dating back to the 1600s, stud books and breeding records, DVDs, and more. It’s open to the public staff “happy to welcome visitors and help you with your dog research,” and “in-depth research on a fee-paying basis.” The American Alpine Club library specializes in mountain climbing works, while the Interference Archive focuses on socialist activism. My favorite is the Library of Water in Stykkisholmur, Iceland “that has set out to capture the spirit of Iceland through its waters, weather, and words.”

The library of the near future may well complete the symbiosis between bookstores and traditional libraries. Increasingly libraries are adding computerized print-on-demand printers that produce bound, illustrated copies of books as patrons request them either to buy or borrow. Like all new ventures, the marketplace takes a while to settle down. For example, publishers still can’t agree on pricing and distributing e-books. Most of the hundred or so print-on-demand publishers are academic or reprint specialists, but mainstream publishers will eventually join in.

Libraries will persist as long as the need for information exists, for, as Herbert Samuel said, “a library is thought in cold storage.”


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