#7 Adhesives

January 26, 2016

If you want perfect stickiness, look to gecko feet – not a crayfish straightjacket.

The reviews are in!

“As a chemist, this episode has the most succinct and effective description of van der Waals interactions that I’ve ever heard.” – Reddit user superhelical

The Facts

Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is “How We Do” by Nicholas Britell.

Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney, and produced by Rachel Ward and Kalila Holt, with help from Emma Jacobs, Jacob Cruz, Laura Sims, and was mixed by Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Jody Roberts at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

TL:DR

SurpsinglyAwesome-Adhesives

Episode sketchnote by the extremely talented Catherine Madden

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Show transcript

————————————————BEGIN PRE-ROLL AD———————————————–

ADAM DAVIDSON: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Naturebox. Naturebox is on a mission to make smart, delicious snacking easy. One way they do that is by creating a custom snacking profile for each of their members. Like, are you a savory person? You could try their White Cheddar Jalapeno Popcorn. Are you more into sweets? What about cinnamon yogurt mini-grahams? Plus, you can rate every snack and change your snack preferences at any time. Visit naturebox.com/AWESOME to get 50 percent off your first box now. NatureBox: smart delicious snacking made easy.

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HEATHER KENT: See I don’t like being called Martha Stewart, because Martha Stewart will always just reach for that hot glue gun and I hate the hot glue gun. I just hate it.

ADAM: Wait a second? You said you don’t like being called Martha Stewart because she’s too sloppy.

HEATHER: Just that she uses the wrong glue.

ADAM: This is a Heather Kent, she’s a set and prop designer for theater. And she’s also the co-founder of the website ThisToThat.com, which I have to say, is my new favorite website. Let’s say you need to glue metal to wood. You pick metal from one dropdown menu, then you pick wood from the second dropdown menu, and then you hit the button that says “let’s glue!” And you get the answer.

RACHEL WARD: Which turns out to be, in this case, LePage’s Metal Epoxy. Or you could use J-B Weld. Or Faststeel Epoxy Putty. Or LePage’s Press-Tite Contact, or LePage’s Press-Tite Green Contact, or 3M Fastbond 30-NF. There are six glues that work to varying degrees, with different strengths, different drying times, and different levels of toxicity.

ADAM: It was this conversation where I realized—glue is not a simple thing. Adhesives are so complex. In fact, I’m gonna say it right here: Adhesives are surprisingly awesome. This is of course, Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet Media, I’m Adam Davidson.

RACHEL: And I’m Rachel Ward, and I’m keeping this seat warm until Adam McKay comes back from working on his film, The Big Short.

ADAM: Which is really great, if you have not seen it now, I’m sure you have, go out and see it.

RACHEL: But first, may I propose that you finish listening to this podcast. So let’s go back to thistothat.com—the gluing website. Set designer Heather Kent runs this website along with Dave McKellar.

ADAM: Dave says the website came about when he bought a house. He was constantly calling his friend Heather with questions like, “Okay, I gotta glue some metal to some wood—what’s the best glue for that?” and she’d give him an answer.

DAVE MCKELLAR: I think what I had was a normal amount of gluing challenges, but I just happened to have somebody to call about them. Most people don’t have a trusty person on speed dial for that.

ADAM: And then one day, he thought, “I have all these questions, I bet LOTS of people are trying to glue weird stuff to each other. We should just make a website that does this. That explains how to glue this to that.”

RACHEL: And they did. Back in 1999. And the website still pretty much looks like it did back in 1999. But in the interim, they’ve fielded a lot of inquiries from people about the best strategies for gluing stuff. But there was one email that stumped them.

HEATHER: One of the ones I think was the hardest was I think the crayfish. Right, the crayfish to…

ADAM: You mean like a little shrimp, a crayfish.

HEATHER: It was a lab, they were using MRIs on crayfish and they needed the crayfish to remain very still while they did the MRIs. And so they wanted their eye stalks to be still. And so we’re talking about being underwater, so you need a glue that will adhere under water. They wanted to keep the crayfish alive. And so that was one that stumped us. There was no glue possible. So I suggested that they use like a, almost like a straightjacket. A stalk jacket.

ADAM: Did that happen?

HEATHER: I don’t know. I would love to have seen if they did actually go that route.

RACHEL: Do you want to send us their contact information and we’ll see if we can track down an answer for you.?

HEATHER: That would be cool. That would be great.

ADAM: That would be awesome.

RACHEL: We’ll try. I mean, we’ll give it a try.

ADAM: We did give it a try. And now, we know the answer.

RACHEL: But obviously we’re not just going to give it up right now. So if you hang on, we will come back to this. But first, we have to dive deeply into the existential nature of glue.

ADAM: Because our fundamental question is: What IS glue? How does it work? And why are there so many types of it?

RACHEL: These are the kinds of questions that haunt your soul, once you’ve spent a couple of hours on ThisToThat.com.

ADAM: To get the answers, we went to an expert.

LAURA KAUFMAN: I am Laura Kaufman, I’m a professor in the department of chemistry at Columbia University.

ADAM: Great. And you have your own lab, the Kaufman Lab.

LAURA: It’s the Kaufman Lab! There are people in there, they work for me!

RACHEL: Laura explained to us that glue works in basically one of two ways. So, let’s start with your classic Elmer’s glue. You squirt the glue onto some construction paper, the water in it evaporates, and voila, your construction paper star is now stuck perfectly to your party hat.

ADAM: So I found this a fascinating process. I never knew what was going on when you glue with Elmer’s glue or wood glue, the most basic, simple glues. Here’s how it works: There is, in the bottle, floating around in the water, all these really long chemical chains. They’re called polymers. And then you pour the glue out. It’s super liquidy so that the polymers can dig deep, deep, deep into the surface of the wood or the construction paper where there are all these pores. It digs deep in there, and then the water starts to evaporate. And that just leaves those long chemical chains. They get all jammed up together, like your fingers twined up together. And that is how the glue keeps two things together. And for most of human history, this simple type of glue, this very basic glue, was all there was.

RACHEL: Laura explained to us that adhesives have been around for about 8,000 years. And the classic example of this kind of old timey glue is glue made from animal protein, so like bones, or hooves, or any tissue that’s like really rich in collagen. And this is the origin of the whole “horse being sent to a glue factory” image that you may have seen referred to in literature. They really did used to make glue out of horses. That is true.

ADAM: But this type of bond is pretty primitive—it’s pretty weak, and you’re fairly limited with what you can glue together. It’s great for craft projects, but it is not great for building like, chariots, or homes, or things you’d wanna depend on for your entire life.

RACHEL: So then, in the first half of the 20th century, scientists start making some really big advances in a totally different category of adhesives. You’ve probably heard of one of the first ones—super glue. A brand name for it is Krazy Glue, with a K. But like so many of the things we take for granted today, it comes out of World War II.

ADAM: Harry Coover was working on a team of scientists that had been given the assignment of coming up with a plastic to use as rifle sights. And he started experimenting with this chemical called cyanoacrylate. And it was TERRIBLE. It was awful for the job. Because whenever he worked with it, the cyanoacrylate just got stuck to everything, almost instantly. And he couldn’t get it off. So he set it aside and said forget you, I don’t wanna have anything to do with you, cyanoacrylate.

RACHEL: I like to imagine him like in his lab, like shaking his fist at the sky and going, “Cyanoacrylate!” And then resolving to never work with it again.

ADAM: That seems exactly right. In fact, let’s just say, that definitely happened.

RACHEL: That definitely happened.

ADAM: But then ten years later, Harry is working at Eastman Kodak and he starts thinking: hey, that plastic that stuck to everything, maybe that would be a really good glue. And so he started developing it. And it turns out, it is a massive leap forward in glue technology. It’s way stronger than all those glues that came before it.

RACHEL: It’s strong enough to strike fear in the heart of this producer. When we were talking to Laura we had a bunch of glue in the studio with us. Including Harry Coover’s glue.

ADAM: Alright, so now I have some Krazy Glue.

RACHEL: Ok you, be careful with that.

ADAM: Yeah my wife, she glued her fingers together for quite some time. Alright.

LAURA: So the Krazy Glue, with the Krazy Glue you start with single monomers, small molecules, and upon exposure to very small amounts of water, such as is present in just the air, the small amount of water vapor in the air, that’s enough to start the polymerization process. And this is helping your glue stick to itself, right. This is really increasing the cohesive properties of the glue as well as the adhesive properties of the glue, by having this polymerization happen.

ADAM: This is the second type of glue—it’s called A reactive glue. And it’s totally different from Elmer’s, or white glue, the old glues that are called non-reactive. This kind of glue bonds through a CHEMICAL reaction. The stuff in the bottle, before it’s poured, is actually a different chemical than the hardened glue after it leaves. The cyanoacrylate, the second it touches the air—and it’s actually the water in the air—it triggers this WILD reaction. It happens in seconds. And you definitely can’t see it. But what’s happening as the Krazy Glue is drying is the molecules are starting these really long chains. They’re creating their own polymer chains, and they’re thrashing around like fish on a dock getting all locked up within each other.

RACHEL: And all of this stuff happening as Krazy Glue is drying, that’s what makes it kind of feel hot to the touch as you’re applying it, because this reaction is happening. And that’s why you shouldn’t use it on something like cotton because it can actually catch on fire.

ADAM: So Krazy Glue and all those other reactive glues, these are a huge leap forward. A total change in how strong glues can be. And that’s because a chemical bond is just way, way stronger than the physical bond that you see in Elmer’s and other old, protein type glues. I just found it really amazing that just in the last 70, 80 years, there’s been this transformation, a historic transformation in the nature of glue. And it got me wondering, has glue technology, have we reached maximum glue technology? Or is there something that cool happening right now? So, I called up the leading lobbyist for the entire adhesives industry…

RACHEL: I’m sorry, he’s the lobbyist for the entire adhesive AND sealant industry, Adam. Please do not sell him short!

ADAM: You’re right. Adhesives and sealants. And I was asking him, hey, what’s the most exciting area of adhesives technology right now? And without skipping a beat, right away, he said automotive adhesives, that is the thrilling, cutting edge of the adhesives industry.

RACHEL: Which I think is so weird. Because there is nobody who like posts up at a stoplight, rolls down their window, and like guns their engine, and says to the guy in the next car over, “Hey bruh, check out the adhesives on this one.”

ADAM: Well they might, once they hear the rest of this podcast, which is coming up, right after these words from our sponsor.

————————————————AD BREAK————————————————————-

ADAM: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Mack Weldon. Mack Weldon is reinventing men’s basics with smart design, premium fabrics, and simple shopping. Go to Mack Weldon.com where you can update your wardrobe with just a few clicks, and get it all delivered right to your door. And this week, we talked with Mack Weldon founder and CEO Brian Berger about what inspired him to found the company.

BRIAN BERGER: Shopping for underwear, socks, men’s basics was an awful experience and I really wanted to do something to change that.

ADAM: The awful part: he could never remember which brands he liked and even if he knew exactly which brand he wanted to buy, he couldn’t find it at the store.

BRIAN: I remember this one time when I went into Bloomingdales to buy underwear. And I was standing out in front of the department and I was looking out onto this sea of boxes with airbrushed guys on them and about to have a panic attack. And it was interrupted by the sales rep saying to me, “Are you confused yet?”

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RACHEL: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Squarespace, the easiest way to build a beautiful website, portfolio or online store. One company that hosts their site on Squarespace is Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, in New York City. Van Leeuwen makes artisan ice cream from scratch. And it’s a family-owned business, they’re founded by brothers Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen, along with their third co-founder, Laura O’Neill. And, over the years, Laura has learned a thing or two about working with the family part of a family business.

LAURA O’NEILL: It’s mostly great. We’re kind of like a weird modern family business.

RACHEL: Mostly. Mostly great?

LAURA: Yeah.

RACHEL: What’s going on there?

LAURA: Oh no. I mean it’s uh…since we’re running our own business, sometimes things can be stressful and I think when you’re working with people with who you’re very close with, sometimes the boundaries are not there, and that can be like a pro and a con.

RACHEL: Do you ever play them off each other? Like, “Well, your brother said…”

LAURA: No. They may say I do, but I don’t.

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————————————————END AD BREAK——————————————————

ADAM: Welcome back, you’re listening to Surprisingly Awesome, and one thing I learned, making this episode. This is actually a great time to be in the glue industry. A lot of the experts I talked to said now may be the best time ever. There is so much cool stuff going on. Here’s one of those people.

SELAMAWIT BELLI: My name is Selamawit Belli, and I’m the North America field marketing manager for structural adhesives at Dow Automotive. But I am a mechanical engineer by education.

ADAM: You’re a mechanical engineer, not a chemist.

SELAMAWIT: No, I’m not a chemist, but I know enough about adhesives to be dangerous

ADAM: By the way, Selamawit would want me to point out, that Selamawit Belli and the entire Dow Automotive team is very obsessed with safety, and not with danger. So to understand how adhesives are being used in the car, I had to wrestle with the image I have in my mind, probably you have in your mind, of how a car is made. There’s like a metal box rolling down a production line, and there’s like some robotic arm punching rivets into them, with fire welding metal onto metal.

RACHEL: And for most of automotive history that was pretty much how it worked, but then in the 1980s, a bunch of European luxury car makers, like BMW and Audi started experimenting with the idea—what if instead of welding, what if we glued?

ADAM: And this was all possible because of the development of all those reactive glues, those chemical glues that are so strong, they’re structural. They can actually be used to hold a car together. In fact, today the average car has about 27 pounds of adhesive holding it together. And here’s the crucial part, those 27 pounds are replacing hundreds of pounds potentially of metal welds and screws and bolts.

RACHEL: So a good example of this is Ford’s F-150. This is the iconic, stomping around the farm or construction site in work boots truck. And the image of this truck is that it’s super sturdy, super tough, super macho. And the commercials are all about how the truck’s got this “high strength military grade aluminum alloy body.”

ADAM: Exactly the same tough material used to make my son’s stroller. But the Ford F-150 also has a steel frame—and the super light aluminum has to join with the strong steel. This is happening in a lot more cars these days. And Selamawit says, before adhesives came on the scene, it was really, really hard to figure out how to get steel and aluminum to stay together.

SELAMAWIT: The biggest advantage for adhesive is the fact that now you can put two materials together that can’t be welded, with an adhesive.

ADAM: Wait, so explain this to me, if I want to put steel and aluminum together, I can’t weld them together?

SELAMAWIT: No. No, not today.

ADAM: So they glue it. The built-Ford-tough-F-150 is held together by glue.

ADAM: I gotta say, like in my mind, when I think of steel being welded together, that feels like, oh that’s going to last for a really long time and that’s really structurally sound. When I think, oh, when we glued this thing together, that feels really scary. I’m not sure I want to drive that car.

SELAMAWIT: But adhesives have been tested for long term for durability, and there’s a lot of instances that they outlast the metal substrate. You know what’s also glued together, is also aircraft and airplane.

ADAM: Airplanes are glued?

SELAMAWIT: Yeah, airplanes are glued together. Now, don’t worry the next time you fly. It’s okay. They’ve been glued together for a long time.

RACHEL: What’s amazing here is that glue is becoming, in the auto industry not just some sort of backup option. It’s becoming the preferred, better option.

SELAMAWIT: You use adhesives, what you’re now, you’re improving the performance of the vehicle for safety, for crash, for drive and handling, for vibrations. So it’s an added benefit in terms of performance.

ADAM: Is that because there is a, with a weld, there’s point of tension, like at the weld point, that’s a point of tension like at the weld point, that’s a point where it could crack? Whereas with adhesives, with glue, you’re gluing the whole thing together so it’s like a much longer surface of connection?

SELAMAWIT: That’s it.

RACHEL: Adhesives also help with something that consumers, and governments, have been wanting in their cars for awhile—they can help make them more fuel efficient. The lighter a car, the further it can go on a tank of gas. But Americans like their cars pretty big.

ADAM: I want my big Ford F-150. So we have to make those big, big cars lighter, but stronger. And they way they do that lighter but stronger trick, is with glue. Special new glues.

RACHEL: These glues do two things—they reduce the need for fasteners like rivets that weigh a lot in a car. But they also allow you to use lighter materials for the body of the car, like the aluminum alloy in the F-150. So in the F-150, the glue that helps accomplish this is Dow’s “Betamate.”

ADAM: Gary Jialanella is in research and development at Dow Automotive.

GARY JIALANELLA: So Betamate is a breakthrough in that it is a… epoxy adhesives typically are quite brittle. Brittle meaning that if you smack it, they’ll fracture, they’ll shatter pretty easily. So they have very low impact resistance, if you will. So what we’ve done with Betamate is we’ve been able to take that relatively brittle material and we’ve been able to toughen it.

ADAM: So super tough glue, super brittle, let’s make it less brittle, the way they do that is they basically inject a bunch of microscopic little rubber balls into the glue. Or as Gary calls them:

GARY: Some people refer to them as spherical domains.

RACHEL: And all of these little rubber balls in the epoxy make it so that the car doesn’t just fall apart every time you have an accident.

ADAM: This summer, I had a car accident. It wasn’t too bad, nobody was hurt. But it was really scary. My car hydroplaned on some water, so I’m stamping on the brakes, and the car doesn’t stop at all, and I just crash into the back of a car that was being driven by a 7-month pregnant woman sitting next to her husband, who was a cop.

RACHEL: That’s terrifying. I mean like, car accident, terrifying in general but add the, add the component of like, a pregnant passenger and a cop passenger.

ADAM: It was terrible. Everyone was very shaken, I have to say, but nobody was hurt.

RACHEL: That’s good.

ADAM: Thank God. Yes. The airbags did deploy, the front of my car was crumpled. And the whole experience was awful. But now, I am far enough away from that experience that I can hear what Gary told me about the epoxy that is used in cars, and it made me realize wow, that’s a lot of really cool physics and chemistry. This car is bashing into another car, and there’s this huge force that’s going into the metal and then into the glue, and then there are these tiny little rubber balls that are kind of bouncing up and down, in and out, all around and diffusing. It’s all happening at the microscopic level. It’s such a cool idea to think that all these new glue technologies are actually meaning that there are gonna be fewer injuries and deaths.

RACHEL: This is definitely not something that like, you think about when you’re in second grade and you’re using Elmer’s glue to like affix some feathers to a bird or something.

ADAM: No, you’re mostly thinking about how it’s fun to stick your fingers together and maybe taste a little bit of the glue. But it is cool, right, to think that glue can also be this futuristic, high technology product.

RACHEL: But, Laura Kaufman, the chemist from Columbia University, pointed out we still have a long way to go.

LAURA: We don’t have the best glues there can be. With the best glues there could be, you could put together anything you wanted, take it apart, re-put it together, take it apart, as you wanted, forever.

RACHEL: And this problem of not having the perfect glue. It’s not just a problem here on earth. It’s also a problem in…

STAR TREK: Space, the final frontier.

RACHEL: While we were working on this episode we learned that space is a super, super hard place to glue things.

AARON PARNESS: The space environment is a very harsh place.

ADAM: This is Aaron Parness, he’s an engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

AARON: We used to build rockets. Nowadays we build spacecraft and robots that go explore the solar system, the most famous of which is probably Curiosity that’s roving on the surface of Mars right now.

ADAM: For about 8 months if you asked my son what do you want to be when you grow up, he said, “A Mars Rover.”

AARON: If that’s age 4, that’s cute. If that’s age 16, that’s a little…

ADAM: Right.

RACHEL: Aaron is kind of living every 4-year-old’s dream—he builds robots to send into space. And those robots need to stick, but…

AARON: A lot of things you’re used to using on the ground don’t work in space because it’s either way too cold, or because there’s this vacuum, right, there’s no air pressure, and so things that are gel-like or liquid, immediately evaporate, or sublime, into space because there’s no vapor pressure to keep them in their liquid form, or their gel-like form.

RACHEL: And then there’s another problem. Like, think about what a space robot does. It’s crawling all around the outside of the International Space Station. It’s moving its little space robot legs, planting and unplanting its space robot feet. So it needs to be able to STICK, and but then it also needs to be able to UNSTICK, as it moves around and goes about its day.

ADAM: And the inspiration they took to solve this robot problem, wound up coming from nature. It came from the feet of tiny lizards—from GECKOS.

AARON: These are the best, they’re the world’s best climbers. With one toe, they can hold their entire body weight. And they can climb anything, right, so a lot of things can climb certain surfaces, right, a bear can climb a tree but a bear can’t climb a glass window. And the gecko can climb everything.

ADAM: Aaron is part of this actually burgeoning field, no joke, called “gecko adhesives.”

AARON: You know, it was a science question for a long time, how do geckos stick?
And in the 60s and 70s and 80s there was a lot of different experiments, maybe it’s vacuum, maybe it’s some kind of goop that they secrete out of their toes. Maybe it’s a hydrophobic forces. And it wasn’t until microscopes got better that we were actually able to look and see and we saw these structures.

RACHEL: Those structures are a very elegant solution for perfect adhesion. And no one had ever thought of it. When you look at a gecko’s foot with the naked eye, it looks just like a kind of regular old animal paw. But if you look at them under a microscope, you see that the foot kind of looks like a hair brush, with rows of bristles. And if you’ve got a good enough microscope, you can see that the individual bristles of the brush, have little hairs bunching off of the end of them.

ADAM: He actually said, which I loved, they kind of look like broccoli stalks. They just get smaller and smaller and smaller as they go on.

RACHEL: I feel like he was playing to the audience there though.

ADAM: Hey, that’s our audience! Just for scale here, the bristles we’re talking about are so tiny, you could fit 100 of them inside of a human hair. And then at the top of those tiny little hundredth of a hair bristles, there are these even tinier little hairs that are called spatulae—those are nanoscopic. Aaron says they’re somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 ATOMS across.

Rachel: Aaron explained that there’s this concept—it’s called van der Waals forces—that when atoms are close to each other, there’s this mild attraction. And normally nothing comes of it, because it’s so weak. But in the case of the gecko foot, there are so many bristles, and so many tiny hairs on those bristles… There’s so much surface area, that it puts a ton of atoms close to a ton of other atoms. And these van der Waals forces start to add up.

ADAM: Yeah, it has to be really, really small and a whole lot of them. That’s why you can’t just like shove a paint brush on a wall and expect it to stick. And NASA and Aaron thought, well wait a second, if that works for gecko feet, maybe we could put it on robot feet. So that is precisely what Aaron is working on. Right now the gecko gripper is not that much to look at. In a nod to actual geckos, they did paint it green. But mostly it looks like a vice that you’d find in a wood shop.

RACHEL: Right, and that vice looking thing has two pads on it, and those pads have the gecko adhesive material on them.

ADAM: When you touch them, they don’t feel sticky. But when you take the device and apply it to a surface, and slide it in the right direction—Aaron calls this “applying the load”—it sticks. And then when you slide it back the other way, it unsticks.

AARON: It’s important to say if the gecko didn’t exist, we would never come up with this idea. We call this biomimetics, right, so you’re inspired by the biology and you try and make something that uses the same principles. We’re still not capable of manufacturing those intricate details at all the different length scales, so we’re still 20 years away probably of making a material that’s as good as the gecko grows.

ADAM: Wow, so what do you do all day if you’re 20 years away from solving this problem?

AARON: We’re able to use the same principles, we’re able to create something that works, it just doesn’t work as well and it doesn’t work on as many surfaces. But it works well enough that it has a lot of promise for certain applications, right? If you want to grapple a solar panel in space, the material we have today is plenty good enough to do that. There are some companies that are trying to commercialize this. They think their first consumer base may be, you know, in factories, like picking up cereal boxes and stacking them. There’s another company that’s trying to put it into clothes, I think, to replace velcro or buttons or snaps. My favorite, which I don’t think anybody’s trying to do this yet but, if you want to hang your flat screen TV on the wall, you could just take it up to the wall and hang it and then you don’t have to cut into your wall, you don’t have to put any sort of mounting hardware into the studs. You just put it on the wall and when you’re ready to move it, you just pick it up and put it somewhere else.

ADAM: Bookshelves without bookshelves, like you could just have books with this on it and just have all your books attached to the wall directly. And you know, you could imagine parking cars like they just toss ‘em up onto the side of a building. It just seems like it changes everything. That feels like a big, big… I feel like you’re underselling.

AARON: Well, you would only have to buy one Post-it note for the rest of your life.

RACHEL: Think of the savings.

ADAM: There’s a big argument in economics right now, where there’s a group of people who say like, we’ve basically done the big stuff. We did the combustion engine and figured out how to access hydrocarbons. The telegraph allowed us to communicate simultaneously across long distances and everything else, including the internet is just variations on that theme. And that the enormous increase in quality of life through technological growth from, say the 1880s to 1980s, is just a one off. We’re done. Like, we’ll develop and we’ll have like, better glues and better phones, but we’re not going to have that big transformation. And I don’t know if that’s true or not but I don’t want that to be true. That seems like such a bummer.

AARON: Those people are wrong.

ADAM: They’re wrong?

AARON: There are have been people saying that at every decade. In the 40s, oh we’ve done it, the hydrogen bomb and nuclear power, it’s over, right? There’s so many things I want that don’t exist yet.

RACHEL: Like what?

AARON: I can’t wait ‘til I don’t have to drive, all the self-driving cars, can’t wait for that. Transportation in general, it still takes forever for me to get from here to Paris, or here to Tokyo. You look to nature, there’s a lot of these kinds of things in nature. I think you’ve seen a trend in the last 10 or 20 years of this bioinspiration. Looking at how insects and birds are able to fly so much more efficiently than we’re able to fly in airplanes or helicopters. There’s a ton of secrets right in front of us that we haven’t tapped into yet.

ADAM: Rachel, ever since we talked to Aaron, I’m thinking about this all the time. I’m imagining a world, I guess like 20 years from now, when we have gecko gripping technology everywhere. Just think of like brick, or cement, or steel buildings. Think of roads, think of cars and airplanes and all sorts of things where you have to make it all whole and permanently adhere to each other to make it work. And then if you don’t want it anymore and you want to get rid of it, you have to break that thing, throw all that stuff away, and then get a new one. But what if you could have really strong, structural bonds that you could then rip apart and reposition? You don’t have to tear down your house to build a new one, or tear down an office building to build a new one, you can constantly adjust it. I could turn my kitchen into a bedroom when my cousin’s visiting and I could come to your house and borrow your porch and attach it to my house and make it structurally sound.

RACHEL: I will not be lending you my porch.

ADAM: No, just for like a week while my cousin’s in town. Cause I just made the kitchen into a bedroom, I want a place for us to sit.

RACHEL: So you think that gecko adhesives could bring us to a much more modular future.

ADAM: I am just picturing all the things in the world that exist. This is going back to our cement episode. That exist because we associate structural soundness with permanence. What happens if you can have structural soundness but it can be temporary? And easily changed? That just feels like a fundamentally different world to me.

RACHEL: Adam, I think it’s incredible that you extrapolated that level of societal change from a technology where the example that was given to us was well, it could replace buttons on shirts.

ADAM: I don’t know. Maybe I’m going a little too far. But it makes sense to me, and anyway, it’s just so exciting to think there’s still that level of new technology, new ideas, that is out there to be discovered. That made me feel really good.

RACHEL: Adam, you are talking about like 20 years down the line here. We have left our listeners with a central mystery right here in the present that we haven’t yet solved.

HEATHER: So I suggested that they use like a, almost like a straightjacket. A stalk jacket.

ADAM: Did that happen?

HEATHER: I don’t know. I would love to have seen if they did actually go that route.

RACHEL: Did the crayfish researcher ever adopt Heather and Dave’s crayfish straightjacket idea?

ADAM: Heather and Dave gave us the email account that the inquiry was sent from, but it turned out to be a dead Hotmail account.

RACHEL: But the name in the address looked really, really familiar.

CHRISTOPHER MIMS: My name is Christopher Mims, and I am a technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

RACHEL: And why do you think we’re calling you?

CHRISTOPHER: I have no idea. I’m a little bit scared. Something in my past, and when I had a very different career than I have now.

RACHEL: The internet is amazing. We went from like, not really knowing if this person existed to talking to him on Twitter.

ADAM: And realizing I’ve been following him on Twitter for a long time.

RACHEL: That happened in the span of like two hours.

ADAM: And way back before he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, or Quartz, or Scientific American—more than a decade ago—he was studying crayfish in a lab at Georgia State University.

CHRISTOPHER: Crayfish are wily and tenacious. They’re one of those invertebrates that has a fairly complicated social life. They have social hierarchies just like primates do. They have all these clever ways to get away from predators.

RACHEL: So you needed the crayfish to be still so that you could get a good MRI?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. We needed them to be absolutely still. Just like you would be, if you had to get an MRI on your knee, or your head, or whatever.

ADAM: So, our understanding is that at some point you wanted advice on how to glue them. You wanted an expert in gluing things. Does this ring a bell?

CHRISTOPHER: Vaguely. I think we were driven by desperation to try anything.

RACHEL: So we believe that you reached out to Dave McKellar and Heather Kent, two Canadians who live in the Toronto area, and who run the website, ThisToThat.com.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, that’s entirely plausible.

ADAM: And you’re their greatest failure. You’re the thing they couldn’t solve.

CHRISTOPHER: Oh yeah, that’s coming back now.

RACHEL: So, Heather and Dave, here is the bad news: Christopher did not use your crayfish straightjacket idea.

ADAM: Instead, they wound up putting the crayfish in a suspension—basically dumped them in a bunch of Jello to immobilize them long enough to do the MRI.

RACHEL: BUT! It turns out that the team did use some of Heather and Dave’s advice on another probleM—how to secure a tiny plastic hose to the a crayfish so that they could pump contrast dye into its body for the MRI. We asked Christopher if he had anything he wanted to say to Heather and Dave.

CHRISTOPHER: Well, I’d like to say thanks for being part of our scientific process, because in all the trial and error, there’s always something interesting that comes out of it.

ADAM: In all the trial and error, there’s always something interesting that comes out of it. That could be the motto of this podcast.

ADAM: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by Nicholas Britell, I love you Nick. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Caitlin Kenney and Alex Blumberg, and produced by Rachel Ward and Kalila Holt.

RACHEL: Emma Jacobs, Laura Sims, Jacob Cruz, Nathan Pemberton all provided production assistance and we were mixed by Andrew Dunn.

ADAM: Special thanks to Jody Roberts at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

RACHEL: You can tweet at us at @surprisingshow, email us surprisinglyawesome@gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com. We’re on Facebook, and at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/awesome.

ADAM: You can also just throw a letter in the Gowanus Canal and it’ll probably float its way right to our beautiful new studios.

RACHEL: And we absolutely encourage you guys to check out our new friends at ThisToThat.com BUT we regret to inform you they are no longer answering individual gluing questions like Christopher’s, so you’re just going to have to settle for the dropdown menus.

ADAM: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.

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RACHEL: So do you think Martha Stewart is in the pocket of big hot glue?

HEATHER: Big hot what?

DAVE: Is she like, taking bribes or something like that.

HEATHER: Oh, like actually getting…

DAVE: Or sponsorship.

HEATHER: She could be. She could be, because you go to Michael’s and it’s all Martha and it’s all the hot glue guns.

RACHEL: I think we’re busting open a conspiracy here.

ADAM: That is interesting.

DAVE: She’s already done her time, Martha.

HEATHER: Yeah, that’s true, I don’t want to be too hard on Martha.

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