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Volume 19, Issue 17 (February 18, 2013)

Charlotte Pfeifer Comps Talk

January 17, 2013

The Physics of Spider Webs

Hollywood is notorious for butchering physics, as anyone who has sat through Armageddon can attest. So, you might be surprised to learn that the movie portrayal of Spider-Man in action--swinging over NYC, suspended by a single silk fiber--is actually entirely plausible. In the volume depicted onscreen, spider silk could easily support Peter Parker's weight thanks to its high-performing combination of strength and elasticity. I will begin my comps talk with a discussion of these and other mechanical properties of spider silk. Then, I will move from talking about individual silk strands to talking about the spider web as a comprehensive whole, with particular attention paid to the web's energy-absorbing capacity, its damage tolerance, and the optical phenomena that it exhibits. Finally, I will conclude my talk by surveying some of the coolest ways in which natural and synthetic spider silk are being used today. It turns out that Spider-Man's is not the only or even the most intriguing application.