Scientists in Ireland are using a rather unexpected material to make an extremely sensitive pressure detector: Silly Putty.
The Irish researchers combined the kids' plaything with a special form of carbon, and came up with a remarkable new material — one they think could someday be useful in making medical devices.
Physicist Jonathan Coleman, at Trinity College, Dublin, says Silly Putty has some extraordinary properties. If you roll the stuff into a tight ball and throw it on the ground, it'll bounce. "But if you pull it very, very slowly, it will flow as if it's a liquid, a viscous liquid," he says.
That's why you have to put Silly Putty back in its plastic egg when you're done playing with it. If you don't, it'll flow into the carpet and you'll never get it out, as many frustrated parents have discovered.
Industrial scientists came up with the formula for Silly Putty about 70 years ago. They were looking for synthetic substitutes for rubber. It's basically a mixture of boric acid and silicone oil. But apart from turning it into a toy, nobody could really figure out what to do with it.