Sticky

Almost exactly three years ago, I signed a document that changed my life – the book deal for Science and the City. It marked the first step on the steepest learning curve I’ve been on to date. 2+ years of researching engineering topics, reading scientific papers and industry reports, visiting labs and construction sites, doing calculations, interviewing scientists, engineers, architects, designers, manufacturers, etc., tying myself up in knots trying to translate their work into plain English, spending countless hours at my desk, despairing that I’d ever taken on a project that I was so clearly woefully unprepared / under-qualified for.

I loved every minute of it.

Well, to be honest, the book-writing-era coincided with a number of other life changes. From heartbreak and job-changes, to family illnesses and a move across the globe…. It was a busy (and occasionally stressful) time. BUT, I learned more in that period than I ever could have imagined. I met some incredible people, saw things I’ve always dreamed of seeing, regained my excitement for science, and utterly fell in love with writing. Most importantly of all, the experience reminded me how lucky I am to have the friends and family that I do. There were so many times that I floundered, and thought I couldn’t do it. Without fail, one or more of ‘Laurie’s Army’ appeared just at that moment and bolstered me, fed me, phoned me, gave me a hug, took me for coffee, loaned me money…anything that was needed. Without me ever having to ask for their help. It was a humbling experience. And when I submitted the final, final draft of the book, I admit that I felt bereft. Mainly because this amazing, singular experience was over.

But, on that point, I was wrong. It turns out that writing a book isn’t going to a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me……{drumroll please}……I’ve signed a contract with Bloomsbury, to write my second book (eeeeep)!! It will hit shelves in late 2019 / early 2020, and is provisionally titled Sticky: The untold story of the forces that built civilisation

 If you're a fan of Mary Roach, I think you'll like the title :) I'm delighted to say that when we met in late 2016, Mary gave me a big thumbs-up!
If you’re a fan of Mary Roach, I think you’ll like the title 🙂 I’m delighted to say that when we met in late 2016, Mary gave me a big thumbs-up!

Sticky will be much more of a materials science book than SATC was. It’s also a lot closer to some of the research I did at NPL, and is a topic that no-one else has attempted to tackle (I suspect I’ll soon discover why!!). I am both excited and nervous about it – when I think about it, my response swings from ‘WHY THE HELL AM I DOING THIS TO MYSELF AGAIN?’ to ‘THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!’. I think this is largely because I’m a lot less naive this time around, and I remember just how hard I had to work (and how much time I’d to dedicate) to get SATC out the door… in short, I know the size of the challenge ahead.

Even writing the proposal was a completely different experience this time. Rather than thinking of the chapters as a collection of interesting topics, I really had to think about HOW I’d write this one – what are the stories I want to tell, and who are the best people (interviewees) to help me do that. I’ve also found myself thinking about the other stuff I can do to help Sticky reach a wider audience, including developing teaching resources or recording videos on some of the trickier concepts. I learned a lot from SATC – feedback on its tone and content will undoubtedly influence this one, and hopefully for the better. Sticky also comes with a very long list of questions that I want to explore, which is very exciting 🙂

Anyway, I thought you might like a sneak preview of it. The summary – written for the proposal, so forgive me if I sound like a d*ck – and the draft Table of Contents are here for your perusal. Let me know what you think!

STICKY – The Summary
Sticky aims to uncover a universe that’s largely hidden to us – that of the many, tiny forces that literally hold the modern world together. It will explore friction, which keeps cars on the road, trains on the tracks and our feet on the ground. It will also introduce readers to the glues, adhesives and textures that rule and improve our daily lives, from longer-lasting knee implants to the ever-reliable post-it note. Together we’ll investigate how evolution has made use of stickiness – or a lack thereof – to give plants and animals a leg-up, as well as uncovering the physics behind our sense of touch.

We’ll look at the other side of the coin too, to show how our understanding of streamlining opened the doors to high-speed flight, and ask why surface interactions can cause things to, literally, grind to a halt. Ultimately, this will be a materials science book, but it will touch on topics as broad as medicine, robotics, and geology, so should appeal to a wide audience. And, as we’ll discover, when it comes to the science of stickiness on the nanoscale – where individual atoms rule – great mysteries still abound.

Just as in SATC, I will use open, accessible language to introduce this complicated, but ultimately fascinating, topic to the general public. Importantly though, I am keen to get into the nitty-gritty of stickiness, so the science will be a little more involved than in SATC. To help guide the reader through this, I’ll interview leading experts in each of the sectors that Sticky will cover. And in many cases, the reader and I will discover brand new ideas together.

Sticky will give me an opportunity to bring the wonderful world of surface science to a new audience, and to demonstrate that these forces, which exist on the smallest scale imaginable, are to thank for some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

Initial Table of Contents (Very likely to change over time. See if you can figure out what all the titles have in common!)

1. Stick With Me – an introduction to the physics of stickiness and slipperiness. There’s a lot we know, and a lot we don’t, so we’ll cover most of the basics here, by looking at everyday materials, such as sticky tape, Post-It notes, Teflon and matches.

2. It’s Only Natural – There are countless examples of animals unknowingly using nanotechnology and material science to make them more streamlined, more agile or more responsive to their surroundings. We’ll uncover a small number of these, including the gecko that can scale buildings like Spiderman, the fastest shark in the world, and owls that can hunt silently. We’ll then talk about how those characteristics have inspired humans to create a new generation of smarter products.

3. Go With The Flow – Every time we walk, drive or fly, we’re pushing through billions and billions of air molecules. It might feel effortless, but it was us learning to overcome air resistance that heralded both the era of aviation and the Space Age. It also made ball sports a whole lot more interesting. We’ll uncover the mechanics of aerodynamics – from the wings of a bird and the curl of a free kick, to the difficulties of bringing a spacecraft safely through our atmosphere.

4. Get Your Rocks Off – Surface interactions have quite literally shaped the Earth, so we’ll discover how it works in this chapter. We’ll delve into the crust, to show how rock formation happens thanks to friction – we wouldn’t have marble (or toothpaste, for that matter) without it. And, it’s this rubbing-together of tectonic plates that causes earthquakes. We’ll talk about ice too, uncovering what makes it so slippery, and discussing what that means for sports and (more importantly) for our climate.

5. We Built This City – From duct-tape and glue, to concrete and stainless steel, everything in the built environment relies on the stickiness of materials. The next generation of skyscrapers will be constructed in an entirely new way, and will be served by ultra-fast elevators. We’ll uncover the materials and technologies behind these innovations, amongst others. Control of surface interactions is also vital in the design of roads and airport runways, and we’ll investigate exactly why that is in this chapter.

6. Don’t Stop Moving – If something’s got moving parts, e.g. a car engine, train wheel or generator, it relies on friction to work, but it will eventually fall victim to it. Our understanding and manipulation of friction and lubricants were central to the success of the Industrial Revolution, and they still keep us moving today. We’ll meet people who are trying to beat these forces at their own game, creating frictionless brakes, energy storage systems, and tyres for F1 race-cars.

7. The Good Life – Here we’ll investigate the surface interactions involved in your weekend – looking at everything from why certain foods are sticky, to how a foamy head helps to keep beer safe. We’ll also uncover the science of printing money, and the use of adhesives in everything from takeaway cartons to musical instruments.

8. I Feel For You – We will focus on how humans interact with the world (and each other) through our skin – this chapter will be an introduction to the physics of fingertips, and an exploration of what it really means to ‘touch’ something. We’ll question if our tactile nature has shaped our choices of certain textures, and we’ll look at the latest work in developing tactile technologies (e.g. haptic screens), as well as sensors that will give robots a sense of touch.

9. The Doctor Will See You Now – Surface science in medicine might have started with plasters, dental cement, and skin glue, but it is rapidly morphing into something new and incredibly exciting. We’ll meet some of the leaders in the field of biomaterials, to understand how attracting cells to surfaces is the key to developing implants that encourage bone growth, particles that deliver drugs directly to cells, and printable electronic tags that directly monitor you vital organs.

10. It’s a Small World – This chapter will investigate the murky side of stickiness – what happens to friction on the smallest scale, when only a few atoms are interacting? So far, finding a definitive answer to this has proved elusive, leading to lots of heated debate amongst experts. With electronic devices getting ever-smaller, understanding these forces on the nanoscale is becoming increasingly important, so we’ll discuss the latest theories, and uncover those materials that could help us meet the challenge.