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Brainiac

We can’t live without manganese!

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

We can’t live without manganese!

A new paper out of Yale University begins with a startling fact: 50 years ago, the global economy depended on fewer than a dozen widely available materials: wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a handful of plastics. Today we rely on many times that number to make the countless products we use every day. And in diversifying, our manufacturing sector has also become more fragile: We’re dependent on an array of specialized materials, from the niobium in your car muffler to the germanium in your cellphone.

What if we suddenly needed a replacement? The study, by four researchers at the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology, looked at the availability of substitutes for 62 different metals in manufacturing use today. Some are quite replaceable—95 percent of the world’s titanium goes to produce pigments, and could be adequately replaced in that job by talc—and some aren’t. Manganese is used as a deoxidizing agent in steel manufacturing and has no known substitute. The researchers displayed their results in a color-coded period table of elements that shows the availability of substitutes for each element. Red shading indicates few to no substitutes are available, while greener shading indicates better substitutes are available.

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You might think, of course, that if really pressed, we’d be able to find good replacements for anything. The researchers aren’t so sure, though: They argue that any changes to the way we manufacture most products would likely result in higher prices, lower performance, or both.

How to recycle an airport

Sonja Duempelmann

Tempelhof Airport, outside Berlin.

Over the last hundred years, America—and the world—has built a lot of airports. Now many of them have become obsolete. So what do you do with a flat, concrete, often urban space once it’s no longer needed for air travel? To landscape architects, it’s a delightful question, and last month the Harvard Graduate School of Design hosted a two-day conference that brought together dozens of scholars tantalized by the possibilities of forsaken airstrips.

“Airport Landscapes,” along with an exhibition by the same name that’s running at the design school through Dec. 19, looked at innovations at still-functioning airports, along with imaginative makeovers given to decommissioned ones. These include turning airports into “urban prairies” or building alternative energy sites (solar cell arrays fit particularly well along old runways). Old airports are useful for lots of purposes, but their transformation is captivating in a different way, too: It’s just really cool to walk—or garden, or land-sail—where airplanes used to touch down.

Interrupted by a bomb

It’s not uncommon for concerts to be postponed at the last minute: bad weather, electrical failures, the lead guitarist suffering from “exhaustion.” But to have a concert canceled by an immense 70-year-old bomb?

That happened to Tufts lecturer and composer Paul Lehrman. On Oct. 24, a new piece co-written by Lehrman and pianist Guy Livingston was scheduled to premiere at the SinusTon Festival for Electronic Music in Magdeburg, Germany. The performance, featuring a piano and a stage full of reverberating loudspeakers, was abruptly called off when a construction project in the center of the city uncovered a 1,000-pound, unexploded American bomb that had been dropped during World War II.

Such discoveries are not rare in Germany, where it’s estimated that thousands of unexploded Allied bombs lie buried in the ground, but they’re taken seriously: The city center was evacuated while experts defused the bomb. The performance took place three days later.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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