Wait A Minute

So we have this breathless headline:

MIT scientists filed two patents on a new, 2D material that’s stronger than steel

Ummm… I always thought that two dimensions (length and width) mean that in mathematical and scientific terms the figure has no thickness — no matter how thin, the third dimension must exist for the figure to have substance — otherwise, it’s just a drawing.

And the explanation in the article doesn’t help:

“Instead of making a spaghetti-like molecule, we can make a sheet-like molecular plane, where we get molecules to hook themselves together in two dimensions,” said Strano, in the MIT blog post. “This mechanism happens spontaneously in solution, and after we synthesize the material, we can easily spin-coat thin films that are extraordinarily strong.”

It doesn’t matter if the third dimension (of the “thin film”) is only a trillionth of a micron thick, or the thickness of a molecule, it’s still >0.

Is this some kind of new math, or did somebody send out a memo redefining the dimensions?

I’m relying on a Reader Of Greater Brain than I to explain this to me.


  1. This reminds me of the jokes frequently told by college math instructors. Engineers were always portrayed as stupid. On the other hand, unlike math professors, I never heard of an engineering professor who kept a file cabinet full of empty potato chip bags or who fell out of a classroom window in the middle of a lecture. Engineers may not get the math or the language right, but they often make things work.

  2. When an entity (media) is not held accountable for it’s behavior there is no telling what sort of outcome will entail.

    At this very moment I am working on a 2D drawing in AutoCAD and later today I will “extrude” the individual elements into 3D dimensions creating a rudimentary “perspective” drawing that will emulate reality. Might sound complicated but it’s not. I do this stuff without computers too.

  3. It’s easy. The article is written by someone in the press, so it’s intended to get people to read it, not to present accurate information. And the company’s announcement to the press was written by marketing, not engineering, because they wanted the press people to be able to read it.

    So, in conclusion, the whole “2D” thing is marketing (a.k.a. lying.)

    It’s best to just assume anything written in any article about a new product is bullshit. Also, probably 80-95% of everything else that gets written by the press.

  4. You’ve got three seperate things going on here.

    First is that english isn’t a language, it’s a trade patios that was developed out of roman soldiers trying to get what they wanted from bartenders and prostitutes. This means that words can take on slightly different meanings in slightly different contexts. To materials scientist when they are talking THEIR lingo 2D has a meaning that is different than when a geometer talks about 2D.

    Second is the scientist explaining that the molecules connect with each other along two dimensions rather than three, thus creating a sheet or a plain. The scientist isn’t claiming that the resulting material is 2D, rather the molecular bonds are 2D.

    Then the journalist gets ahold of it. Boom.

  5. Simplest way to describe this new polymer:

    1. Natural and synthetic polymers form chain-like structures. The article refers to them as “a spaghetti-like molecule.” The “one-dimension” in polymer science refers to lengthening that chain. It grows in length, but not in width.

    2. This new synthetic polymer forms lattice-like structures, similar to chain-mail armor. The article refers to them as “a sheet-like molecular plane.” The “two-dimension” in polymer science refers to widening the molecular chain as it lengthens. It grows in both length and width.

    Dimensional descriptions are used in many specialized ways. In civil engineering, we refer to “vertical” and “horizontal” projects.

    Vertical projects (buildings, towers) do have 3 dimensions. They are described as vertical projects, even though their height does not always exceed their length or width.

    Horizontal projects (roads, airfields) also have 3 dimensions. They are described as horizontal projects, even though their length does not always exceed their height or width.

    Consider also that in machining, we are now up to 5-axis machine tools. Yes, we have added additional “dimensions” to the traditional three!

  6. Kim, you are just up against the jargon barriers that all professions erect so that they can feel superior to those not in their club. In this case, what William O. B’Livion says.

    Thus ‘heart attack,’ (when explained to a patient) will automatically morph into ‘myocardial infarction” when doctors discuss the case, even with the patient within earshot.

    When I started to learn about telecommunications after years steeped in analogue sensor and computer jargon, I was astonished to discover that ‘analogue line” was just a copper cable. WTF? A copper cable that is ‘similar to or can be used instead of something else’? Did they mean like a bus conductor? Sorry.

    Better not start on government/military/name-your-bureaucracy jargon.

  7. So, skimming the article, I get it, courtesy of my dad sharing a lifetime’s expertise in metallurgy and materials engineering with me. The 1d/2d/3d thing is an insiders shorthand abstraction referring to molecular properties (ie: 1d = chain, 2d = chainmail, 3d = chain cube) that then gets mashed by the degenerate mess that passes for reporting these days.

    I swear to Vishnu, half this stuff wouldn’t have passed my 3rd grade teacher’s “who, what, where, when, why and how?” requirements he held stringently for the class newspaper.

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