Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.