The weirdest substance on Earth

Behold a piece of “silica aerogel” — possibly the weirdest substance on Earth. Remember two weeks ago when the Stardust space probe gathered material from a comet’s tail? It was using a big chunk of this material as a net. Silica aerogel is made by mixing silicon dioxide with liquid alcohol, then drying out all the alcohol until you have the least-dense matter on earth: A piece of silica aerogel is 99.6 per cent empty space. When you look at it, your eyes can’t quite focus because it scatters light the same way a hologram does.

It is also the best insulator on the planet. That picture above? It’s hard to make it out at that tiny size, but it’s a flower resting on a piece of thin slab of silica aerogel, perfectly insulated from a blowtorch going full steam below. According to a piece on the stuff in today’s New York Times:

“It has 14 Guinness Book of World Records-type properties,” Dr. Tsou said. “It’s the lowest density of any solid, and it has the highest thermoinsulation properties. Though it would be very expensive, you could take a two- or three-bedroom house, insulate it with aerogel, and you could heat the house with a candle. But eventually the house would become too hot.”

The true science geeks among you can check out the full Silica Aerogel web site.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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