The Mystery of Wood

Occasionally you overhear something truly memorable.

While earning my Physics degree, I overheard a conversation which I have never forgotten. I was in a computer lab in the science building.

A student approached a Chemistry professor who happened to be passing near my station. He asked, “Sir, how does microwave radiation affect the chemical composition of wood?”

I assume that this question was a follow-up from a recent lecture that the prof gave.

The professor answered the question with a question: “How much do we know about the chemical composition of wood?”

End of conversation.

It's funny how we often assume that science totally understands certain “basic” things, but occasionally we get a chance to look behind the curtain. But, really, a few moment's thought can show you that wood must be anything but basic.

There are hundreds of different types of wood, each with its own properties for hardness, color, strength, density, etc. Even within a wood type, there is an amazing range of characteristics depending on the history and location of that particular tree.

Did you know that there is a type of wood that sinks in water — even when completely dried out? It's called ironwood, its density is about 25% greater than water, and (surprise, surprise) it is extremely strong. (Sir Earnest Shackleton used it to build the ship that carried his ill-fated South Pole expedition of 1914-15. He was hoping it would be strong enough to resist the crushing force of ice. It wasn't.)

So, yes, this common material carries a little mystery and history inside of every grain. This makes it very attractive to our romantic side. However, it's not always the best material for a project. I will discuss this more soon.

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