The mystery material that can survive 75 nuclear blasts
Recipe for awe: Coat one egg with Starlite. Blast it with a ridiculous amount of heat until charred black. Crack it open.
- A professional hairdresser and amateur chemist invented an unbelievably heat-resistant coating called Starlite.
- Military applications brought governments running, but the inventor's odd negotiating style ruined discussions.
- Was Starlite lost when he died, or had it already been stolen?
Maurice Ward was a ladies hairdresser and amateur chemist from Hartlepool, Yorkshire, England, and in 1986 he invented a startling plastic coating he called Starlite. Demonstrated on BBC's Tomorrow's World in 1990, Starlite was immediately recognized as a game-changing substance scientists and military personnel had been dreaming of: A material so heat-resistant that it could provide a shield from the heat of nuclear blasts. Up to 75 nuclear blasts, according to Ward. Convinced Starlite could make him rich — and paranoid about his ability protect his formula — Ward never patented his invention so as to avoid publishing its secrets. Alas, however, Ward proved impossible to negotiate with, continually changing his asking price and being extremely difficult about loaning samples for testing. The governmental agencies and industries that rushed to acquire the rights and formula for his mysterious invention all failed, ultimately taking with them the massive payday Ward anticipated. Ward died in 2011.
Starlite’s introduction to the world
On that long-ago Tomorrow's World episode, a Starlite-coated egg was subjected to a ridiculous amount of heat and, though it became charred, it was eventually cracked open to reveal a completely pristine yolk utterly unaffected by exposure to heat. BBC has recently released a set of videos about Starlite, reported by Lee Johnson, called Searching for Starlite. The first segment includes a clip of the material's momentous debut and talks a bit about Starlite's eccentric inventor.
Stumbling into Starlite
Ward's daughter, Nicky Ward McDermott, says Ward got involved with scientific experiments at home as part of his work producing his successful and unique line of women's wigs.
He'd begun working on Starlite in response to the British Airtours Flight 28M air tragedy in 1985. Many of its 55 victims had been trapped in a burning wreckage, and Ward started experimenting with heat-resistant compounds, setting test fires in his back yard to try them out. At some point, he noticed one mixture that just wouldn't burn and he refined it further into a material able to withstand temperatures of 10,000 degrees Celsius without burning, melting, or producing toxic fumes of the sort that proved so lethal onboard Flight 28M.
Ward's claims for Starlite were impressive and subsequently verified in tests:
- Cables coated in Starlite were unbothered by heats of 10,000° Celsius — about the same as a nuclear blast — when tested by the British Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE)
- Starlite-lined eggs were unharmed by the equivalent of nuclear flash and a full-scale explosion when tested by NASA at White Sands New Mexico.
- The UK Royal Signals and Radar Establishment found it impervious to lasers.
As retired British Ministry of Defence scientific officer Keith Lewis is careful to specify to the BBC, Starlite's strength is against heat, non concussion. In other words, it would have no issues with the heat from a nuclear blast, but an object it protects could still be blown apart by the explosion's force.
How Starlite worked
Ward was understandably cagey about exactly what comprises Starlite, though he did say it was a mixture of 21 polymers and copolymers along with some ceramic material.
When struck with heat, Starlite chars and instantly produces a carbon foam that pushes forward toward the heat source. This low-density foam is made of an extremely high-melting point material. Heat is then pushed away from the coated object's surface, and the greater the heat, the thicker the foam layer. "It's a kind of magical material. It's a thin paint, but then it becomes quite a thick, chunky insulating material," says materials and scientist and engineer Mark Miodownik to the BBC.
At least as recently as of 2013, Ward's daughter, Ward McDermott, in partnership with her late father's associate Chris Bennett, operated Starlite Technologies. With a ".org." — that is, non-profit — internet address, they promoted Starlite for use in firefighting, and secondarily in aviation, home protection, space, and the oil and gas industry — Ward senior had offered to help out in response to the BP Deepwater oil spill in 2010. The largest section of the site is devoted to an exhaustive history of Starlite's travails, replete with documentation of inquiries, partnerships, conspiracies, partnerships gone bad, lost life-saving opportunities, and proposals left unexplored. (The site's pages don't seem to have been updated in the last five years, though there's a note saying it's in the process of being re-designed.)
For now, whatever it is that Starlite really is must remain a bit of a mystery, as is the question of whether or not the aerospace industry and military organizations have quietly continued to work with Ward's invention.
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A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
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