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‘Stuff Matters’ explores the science behind everyday objects

Engineer takes an atomic-level look at plastics, glass, chocolate and more

4:00pm, July 26, 2014

MATERIAL MAGIC  Sometimes called “frozen smoke,” silica aerogel can protect skin from an open flame because its airy structure makes it a great insulator.

Stuff Matters 
Mark Miodownik
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26

To capture tiny flecks of comet dust whizzing through space, NASA scientists on the 1999 Stardust mission turned to silica aerogel. Aerogel’s fine, glassy skeleton brought cosmic particles traveling at 18,000 kilometers per hour to a dead stop without damaging them, trapping the raw components of the solar system and transporting them home for study. It’s also an incredible insulator, since its porous structure puts up an effective barrier to heat. Not bad for something that’s 99.8 percent air.

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