Thursday, 19 September 2013

PAPS2013 - spiders and steel

Last week I attended the Physical Aspects of Polymer Science conference, the 26th biennial meeting of the Institute of Physics Polymer Physics Group. This meeting has been running since the 1960s and showcases the strong tradition of polymer science (and physical aspects thereof) in the UK. It's also a meeting that resides deep in my own personal scientific folklore, having attended two of these meetings, in Durham and Bristol, as a fiesty and idealistic young Ph.D. student in the naughty noughties.

Due to my recent career gear change I had the great pleasure of being simply a member of the audience - with no poster or talk to deliver - and from this relaxing vantage point I was able to take in the full and varied program of the highly stimulating but questionably acronymed 'PAPS13'.

A couple of highlights for me happened in adjacent talks. The University of Manchester's Tom Waigh's talk about coherent x-ray imaging techniques went quite far in convincing me that we'll one day use special x-ray beam lines to make coherent images of materials on atomic scales, realising the dream of just 'taking pictures' of polymer (and other) molecules. Tom Waigh was not the only scientist at the conference to highlight the benefit of real space images over inverse-space scattering techniques, and Sheffield's own Nic Mullin showed some incredible AFM images where single polymer chains could be resolved.

The following talk came from Sheffield materials scientist Dr. Chris Holland, who explained some fascinating mechanical and rheological studies of spider silk, and the incredibly sensitive unspun 'dope' that the spider uses to spin its silken fibres. Despite all the interesting physics and rheology on show it was mother nature's example that truly hit home the strength of spider silk though, when our speaker related us his tale of an unfortunate bird who flew into a greenhouse back in Oxford that was home to his eight-legged research associates, at feeding time.  The feathery fool was comprehensively caught in the spiders' webs and had to be freed by human intervention. I had to wonder what sort of sticky end the bird might have met at the hands (legs) of this pack of hungry spiders, or if indeed the spiders were more scared of it than it was of them.

The real shudders came at the refreshment break shortly after though when I reached for a hot beverage. I made a very high pitched noise when I finally realised (after the brave Dr. Matt Mears had to point out) what was residing in the bottom of my mug.

Eight legs or sixteen?
A hairy spider.

Dr. Chris Holland assured me this hairy stowaway was not one of his collaborators, claiming that he prefers his coffee without spider. I only wanted a tea, and was glad I did not boil or drink Spid (think tea bag on the head, hot water, and milk) and he was later released into the wild. Whether you like them or not, they are incredible beasts. I am going to settle for respecting spiders from a distance, and marvel at the properties of their silk.

The conference dinner was held at the Kelham Island Museum and featured a self-guided tour of the museum's collection of artefacts chronicling Sheffield's steel-making heritage. This was followed by some enthusiastic extra-curricular drinking activities in the excellent Fat Cat pub and beyond to round off a great meeting.

More about spider silk:  
Laurie Winkless writing for Materials Today on Super-Strong Spider Silk
Oxford Silk Group webpage

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