Trump appears to change story on meeting with Russian lawyer
By JONATHAN LEMIRE
Monday, August 6
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) — President Donald Trump appears to have changed his story about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that is pivotal to the special counsel’s investigation, tweeting that his son met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer to collect information about his political opponent.
“Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,” Trump wrote in a Sunday tweet. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”
That is a far different explanation than Trump gave 13 months ago, when a statement dictated by the president but released under the name of Donald Trump Jr., read: “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago.”
The misdirection came amid a series of searing tweets sent from his New Jersey golf club, in which he tore into two of his favorite targets, the news media and Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible links between the president’s campaign and Russia. Trump unleashed particular fury at reports that he was anxious about the Trump Tower meeting attended by Donald Trump Jr. and other senior campaign officials.
Trump’s critics immediately pounced on the new story, the latest of several versions of events about a meeting for which emails were discovered between the president’s eldest son and an intermediary from the Russian government offering damaging information about Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. Betraying no surprise or misgivings about the offer from a hostile foreign power, Trump Jr. replied: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Sunday’s tweet was Trump’s clearest statement yet on the purpose of the meeting, which has become a focal point of Mueller’s investigation even as the president and his lawyers try to downplay its significance and pummel the Mueller probe with attacks. On Sunday, Trump again suggested without evidence that Mueller was biased against him, declaring, “This is the most one sided Witch Hunt in the history of our country.”
And as Trump and his allies have tried to discredit the probe, a new talking point has emerged: that even if that meeting was held to collect damaging information, none was provided and “collusion” — Trump’s go-to description of what Mueller is investigating — never occurred.
“The question is what law, statute or rule or regulation has been violated, and nobody has pointed to one,” said Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, on ABC’s “This Week.”
But legal experts have pointed out several possible criminal charges, including conspiracy against the United States and aiding and abetting a conspiracy. Federal campaign finance law makes it illegal for a campaign to accept a “thing of value,” such as a financial contribution, from foreign nationals. Opposition research could be counted by investigators as a “thing of value,” experts have said.
Opposition research — collecting information on an opponent — is not illegal and is a common practice in political campaigns.
But “willfully soliciting a foreign contribution is a crime,” Rick Hasen, a campaign finance expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said in an email Monday. “You have to know you are doing something illegal and the courts would have to consider the opposition research from Russian agents a “thing of value” for campaign finance purposes.”
Beyond any criminal implications, a meeting such as the Trump Tower one would be of interest for counterintelligence reasons as investigators try to understand foreign efforts to penetrate an American campaign or sway public policy.
And despite Trump’s public Twitter denial, the president has expressed worry that his son may face legal exposure even as he believes he did nothing wrong, according to three people close to the White House familiar with the president’s thinking but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Sekulow acknowledged that the public explanation for the meeting has changed but insisted that the White House has been very clear with the special counsel’s office. He said he was not aware of Trump Jr. facing any legal exposure.
“I don’t represent Don Jr.,” Sekulow said, “but I will tell you I have no knowledge at all of Don Jr. being told that he’s a target of any investigation, and I have no knowledge of him being interviewed by the special counsel.”
Democrats hammered away at the president’s admission.
“The Russians offered damaging info on your opponent. Your campaign accepted. And the Russians delivered,” tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “You then misled the country about the purpose of the Trump Tower meeting when it became public. Now you say you didn’t know in advance. None of this is normal or credible.”
Trump’s days of private anger spilled out into public with the Twitter outburst, which comes at a perilous time for the president.
A decision about whether he sits for an interview with Mueller may also occur in the coming weeks, according to another one of his attorneys, Rudy Giuliani. Trump has seethed against what he feels are trumped-up charges against his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, whose trial began last week and provided a visible reminder of Mueller’s work.
And he raged against the media’s obsession with his links to Russia and the status of Michael Cohen, his former fixer, who is under federal investigation in New York. Cohen has indicated that he would tell prosecutors that Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting ahead of time.
Despite a show of force from his national security team this week as a warning against future Russian election meddling, Trump again deemed the matter a “hoax” this week. And at a trio of rallies, he escalated his already vitriolic rhetoric toward the media, savaging the press for unflattering coverage and, he feels, bias.
“The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”
The fusillade of tweets came from Bedminster, Trump’s golf course, where he is ensconced in a property that bears his name at every turn and is less checked in by staffers. It was at the New Jersey golf club where a brooding Trump has unleashed other inflammatory attacks and where, in spring 2017, he made the final decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, the move that triggered the Russia probe.
Trump was joined for his Saturday rally in Ohio by former White House communications director Hope Hicks, who departed the administration earlier this year. Her unannounced presence raised some eyebrows as Hicks has been interviewed by Mueller and was part of the team of staffers that helped draft the original statement on the Trump Tower meeting.
Multiple White House officials have been interviewed while still working at the White House and have remained in contact with the president.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonLemire
What Plato can teach you about finding a soulmate
Professor of Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art
In the beginning, humans were androgynous. So says Aristophanes in his fantastical account of the origins of love in Plato’s Symposium.
Not only did early humans have both sets of sexual organs, Aristophanes reports, but they were outfitted with two faces, four hands, and four legs. These monstrosities were very fast – moving by way of cartwheels – and they were also quite powerful. So powerful, in fact, that the gods were nervous for their dominion.
Wanting to weaken the humans, Zeus, Greek king of Gods, decided to cut each in two, and commanded his son Apollo “to turn its face…towards the wound so that each person would see that he’d been cut and keep better order.” If, however, the humans continued to pose a threat, Zeus promised to cut them again – “and they’ll have to make their way on one leg, hopping!”
The severed humans were a miserable lot, Aristophanes says.
“[Each] one longed for its other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.”
Finally, Zeus, moved by pity, decided to turn their sexual organs to the front, so they might achieve some satisfaction in embracing.
Apparently, he initially neglected to do so, and, Aristophanes explains, the severed humans had “cast seed and made children, not in one another, but in the ground, like cicadas.” (a family of insects)
So goes Aristophanes’ contribution to the Symposium, where Plato’s characters take turns composing speeches about love – interspersed with heavy drinking.
It is no mistake that Plato gives Aristophanes the most outlandish of speeches. He was the famous comic playwright of Athens, responsible for bawdy fare like Lysistrata, where the women of Greece “go on strike” and refuse sex to their husbands until they stop warring.
What does Aristophanes’ speech have to do with love?
Is love a cure for our “wound?”
Aristophanes says his speech explains “the source of our desire to love each other.” He says,
“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole…and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.”
This diagnosis should sound familiar to our ears. It’s the notion of love ingrained deep in the American consciousness, inspiring Hallmark writers and Hollywood producers alike – imparted with each Romantic Comedy on offer.
Love is the discovery of one’s soulmate, we like to say; it is to find your other half – the person who completes me, as Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s smitten sports agent, so famously put it.
As a philosopher, I am always amazed how Plato’s account here, uttered by Aristophanes, uncannily evokes our very modern view of love. It is a profoundly moving, beautiful, and wistful account.
As Aristophanes depicts it, we may see love as the cure for our wound, or the “wound of human nature.” So, what is this wound? On one hand, of course, Aristophanes means something quite literal: the wound perpetrated by Zeus. But for philosophers, talk of a “wound of human nature” suggests so much more.
Why do we seek love?
Humans are inherently wounded, the Greek philosophers agreed. At the very least, they concluded, we are prone to fatal habits, seemingly ingrained in our nature.
Humans insist on looking for satisfaction in things that cannot provide real or lasting fulfillment. These false lures include material goods, also power, and fame, Aristotle explained. A life devoted to any of these goals becomes quite miserable and empty.
Christian philosophers, led by Augustine, accepted this diagnosis, and added a theological twist. Pursuit of material goods is evidence of the Fall, and symptomatic of our sinful nature. Thus, we are like aliens here in this world – or as the Medievals would put it, pilgrims, on the way to a supernatural destination.
Humans seek to satisfy desire in worldly things, Augustine says, but are doomed, because we bear a kernel of the infinite within us. Thus, finite things cannot fulfill. We are made in the image of God, and our infinite desire can only be satisfied by the infinite nature of God.
In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal offered an account of the wound of our nature more in tune with secular sensibilities. He claimed that the source of our sins and vices lay in our inability to sit still, be alone with ourselves, and ponder the unknowable.
We seek out troublesome diversions like war, inebriation or gambling to preoccupy the mind and block out distressing thoughts that seep in: perhaps we are alone in the universe – perhaps we are adrift on this tiny rock, in an infinite expanse of space and time, with no friendly forces looking down on us.
The wound of our nature is the existential condition, Pascal suggests: thanks to the utter uncertainty of our situation, which no science can answer or resolve, we perpetually teeter on the brink of anxiety – or despair.
Is love an answer to life’s problems?
Returning to Plato’s proposition, issued through Aristophanes: how many view romantic love as the answer to life’s problems? How many expect or hope that love will heal the “wound” of our nature and give meaning to life?
I suspect many do: our culture practically decrees it.
Your soulmate, Hollywood says, may take a surprising, unexpected form – she may seem your opposite, but you are inexplicably attracted nonetheless. Alternately, your beloved may appear to be initially boorish or aloof. But you find him to be secretly sweet.
Hollywood films typically ends once the romantic heroes find their soulmates, offering no glimpse of life post-wedding bliss, when kids and work close in – the real test of love.
Aristophanes places demands and expectations on love that are quite extreme.
“[When] a person meets the half that is his very own,” he exclaims, “something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment. These are people who finish out their lives together and still cannot say what it is they want from one another.”
This sounds miraculous and alluring, but Plato doesn’t believe it. Which is why he couches it in Aristophanes’ satirical story. In short: it’s all quite mythical.
Does true love exist?
The notion of “soulmate,” implies that there is but one person in the universe who is your match, one person in creation who completes you – whom you will recognize in a flash of lightening.
What if in your search for true love, you cast about waiting or expecting to be star-struck – in vain? What if there isn’t a perfect partner that you’re waiting for?
Is this one reason why, as the Pew Research Center reports, we see a record number of unmarried Americans?
Alternately, what if you dive into a relationship, marriage even, expecting the luster and satiation to endure, but it does not, and gives way to…ordinary life, where the ordinary questions and doubts and dissatisfactions of life reemerge and linger?
In his book Modern Romance, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari tells of a wedding he attended that could have been staged by Aristophanes himself:
“The vows…were powerful. They were saying the most remarkable things about each other. Things like ‘You are a prism that takes the light of life and turns it into a rainbow’…”
The vows, Ansari explains, were so exultant, so lofty and transcendent, that “four different couples broke up, supposedly because they didn’t feel they had the love that was expressed in those vows.”
Enduring love is more mundane
Love is not the solution to life’s problems, as anyone who has been in love can attest. Romance is often the start of many headaches and heartaches. And why put such a burden on another person in the first place?
It seems unfair. Why look to your partner to heal an existential wound – to heal your soul? This is an immense responsibility no mere mortal can address.
I accept the backhanded critique Plato offers here through Aristophanes. Though I am hardly an expert on the matter, I have found his message quite accurate in this respect: true love is far more mundane.
I should specify: true love is mundane in its origins, if not in its conclusion. That is to say, true love is not discovered all of a sudden, at first sight, but rather, it’s the product of immense work, constant attention, and sacrifice.
Love is not the solution to life’s problems, but it certainly makes them more bearable, and the entire process more enjoyable. If soulmates exist, they are made and fashioned, after a lifetime partnership, a lifetime shared dealing with common duties, enduring pain, and of course, knowing joy.
Obesity and diabetes: 2 reasons why we should be worried about the plastics that surround us
August 13, 2018
Professor, Developmental & Cell Biology , University of California, Irvine
Associate Specialist, University of California, Irvine
Bruce Blumberg receives funding from the United States National Institutes of Health and has previously received funding from the Swedish Environmental Agency FORMAS. He is the holder of US patents related to PPAR-gamma and other nuclear receptors which have been licensed to for-profit entities.
Raquel Chamorro-Garcia does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of California
University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Today, nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults and 21 percent of youth are obese. This trend is on the upswing and the worldwide population is becoming more obese – which is increasing the risk of other conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease whose prevalence has doubled globally in the last 30 years. But you may be surprised to learn that it’s not just food that is making us fat.
Experiments using animal models have shown that exposure to chemicals used in industry and found in plastics, preservatives, pesticides and flame retardants, just to name a few, may be important contributors to the growing number of metabolic disorders – including obesity.
One of the research goals in my lab is to identify environmental chemicals that may contribute to these increased rates of metabolic diseases and to decipher the mechanisms through which they act. This line of work began with the unexpected discovery that a chemical (tributyltin, or TBT) we were studying for other reasons could activate a hormone receptor linked to the development of fat. We went on to show that TBT could make mice exposed during prenatal life fatter and that this trait could be transmitted to future generations.
Our recent study reveals that dibutyltin, a chemical used in the manufacture of a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, alters glucose metabolism and increases fat storage in mice.
Obesity and Type 2 diabetes
In healthy individuals, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin into the bloodstream after a meal when the blood sugar levels rise. Insulin stimulates tissues, such as muscle, fat cells and the brain to absorb glucose from the blood and store it as fat. If the pancreas secretes insulin but tissues are not able to detect it, glucose levels remain unchanged leading to “insulin resistance.”
As an individual becomes overweight, there is an increase in free fatty acids in the blood stream which may contribute to reduced insulin sensitivity in the tissues, leading to increased glucose levels in blood. At early stages, when sugar levels are higher than normal, but not too high, the individual is considered prediabetic. At that stage, prediabetics can make lifestyle changes – lose weight and exercise more – to lower their glucose levels and reduce the risk to develop diabetes.
However, there is evidence in rodents showing that exposure to certain environmental chemicals hampers fat mobilization during periods of fasting and when animals are exposed to a low-fat diet, suggesting that losing weight may be tougher than curbing calories.
Chemicals in plastics associated with obesity
The most common explanation for obesity is overeating calorie-rich foods and sedentary lifestyle. However, in the last 10 years, a subset of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) called obesogens has been shown to cause obesity in animals and were associated with more fat mass in humans. EDCs are chemicals from outside of the body that interfere with the action of natural hormones present in living organisms. Hormones are secreted by the endocrine glands, such as the pancreas and thyroid, which regulate critical biological functions in the body including reproduction and glucose metabolism. Therefore, altering hormone levels or action can contribute to disease.
Obesogens act by inappropriately stimulating fat storage in the organism by altering fat tissue biology, energy balance and/or the regulation of metabolic needs.
Dibutyltin (DBT) salts are used in the manufacture of PVC (vinyl) plastics that are extensively utilized in many applications including construction materials (e.g., window frames and vinyl flooring), and medical devices (e.g., tubing and packaging). DBT has been found in seafood and house dust, suggesting that DBT exposure may be widespread. However, there is little information available about DBT levels in humans.
Exposure to DBT in mice
We used cells in culture to show that DBT activated two proteins that promote fat cell precursors to become mature fat cells, leading to more fat cells and increased fat in each. Therefore, chemicals that activate these receptors promote the development of fat tissue, making them obesogens.
In our study, cells exposed to concentrations of DBT that are in the realm of what humans are predicted to be exposed to showed increased fat storage, as seen under the microscope, as well as increased activity of genes involved in fat tissue development.
Additionally, we gave DBT to pregnant mice via their drinking water and extended the exposure through lactation. Male offspring, which were exposed during development in the womb and through maternal breast milk, accumulated more fat when their diet was changed from a low-fat to a slightly higher fat diet than did unexposed animals. This indicates that DBT exposure during development and early in life predisposed these DBT exposed animals to become obese. Interestingly, we did not find this response to diet in females.
In these mice we noted that insulin production in the pancreas was altered.
Interestingly, they also had increased higher levels of leptin, a hormone secreted by the fat tissue involved in the regulation of appetite and blood glucose levels. Higher fasting glucose levels were found in both genders, but only males showed increased leptin levels and glucose intolerance. The results of our study indicate early exposure to obesogen DBT and increased dietary fat induces prediabetes in male mice.
Since the sources of human exposure to obesogens are numerous, monitoring obesogen levels, including DBT, in human tissues will help understand and prevent the increasing rates of metabolic disorders such as obesity and T2D in human populations. Reducing the use of plastics that contain obesogens will not only improve our health but will be good for the environment as well, considering the huge plastic garbage patches in the world’s oceans.
The world of plastics, in numbers
August 9, 2018
Millions of tons of plastic are manufactured every year.
Professor of Chem/Petroleum Engineering, University of Pittsburgh
Eric Beckman receives funding from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and the National Science Foundation
University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
From its early beginnings during and after World War II, the commercial industry for polymers – long chain synthetic molecules of which “plastics” are a common misnomer – has grown rapidly. In 2015, over 320 million tons of polymers, excluding fibers, were manufactured across the globe.
Until the last five years, polymer product designers have typically not considered what will happen after the end of their product’s initial lifetime. This is beginning to change, and this issue will require increasing focus in the years ahead.
The plastics industry
“Plastic” has become a somewhat misguided way to describe polymers. Typically derived from petroleum or natural gas, these are long chain molecules with hundreds to thousands of links in each chain. Long chains convey important physical properties, such as strength and toughness, that short molecules simply cannot match.
“Plastic” is actually a shortened form of “thermoplastic,” a term that describes polymeric materials that can be shaped and reshaped using heat.
The modern polymer industry was effectively created by Wallace Carothers at DuPont in the 1930s. His painstaking work on polyamides led to the commercialization of nylon, as a wartime shortage of silk forced women to look elsewhere for stockings.
When other materials became scarce during World War II, researchers looked to synthetic polymers to fill the gaps. For example, the supply of natural rubber for vehicle tires was cut off by the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, leading to a synthetic polymer equivalent.
Curiosity-driven breakthroughs in chemistry led to further development of synthetic polymers, including the now widely used polypropylene and high-density polyethylene. Some polymers, such as Teflon, were stumbled upon by accident.
Eventually, the combination of need, scientific advances and serendipity led to the full suite of polymers that you can now readily recognize as “plastics.” These polymers were rapidly commercialized, thanks to a desire to reduce products’ weight and to provide inexpensive alternatives to natural materials like cellulose or cotton.
Types of plastic
The production of synthetic polymers globally is dominated by the polyolefins – polyethylene and polypropylene.
Polyethylene comes in two types: “high density” and “low density.” On the molecular scale, high-density polyethylene looks like a comb with regularly spaced, short teeth. The low-density version, on the other hand, looks like a comb with irregularly spaced teeth of random length – somewhat like a river and its tributaries if seen from high above. Although they’re both polyethylene, the differences in shape make these materials behave differently when molded into films or other products.
Polyolefins are dominant for a few reasons. First, they can be produced using relatively inexpensive natural gas. Second, they’re the lightest synthetic polymers produced at large scale; their density is so low that they float. Third, polyolefins resist damage by water, air, grease, cleaning solvents – all things that these polymers could encounter when in use. Finally, they’re easy to shape into products, while robust enough that packaging made from them won’t deform in a delivery truck sitting in the sun all day.
However, these materials have serious downsides. They degrade painfully slowly, meaning that polyolefins will survive in the environment for decades to centuries. Meanwhile, wave and wind action mechanically abrades them, creating microparticles that can be ingested by fish and animals, making their way up the food chain toward us.
Recycling polyolefins is not as straightforward as one would like owing to collection and cleaning issues. Oxygen and heat cause chain damage during reprocessing, while food and other materials contaminate the polyolefin. Continuing advances in chemistry have created new grades of polyolefins with enhanced strength and durability, but these cannot always mix with other grades during recycling. What’s more, polyolefins are often combined with other materials in multi-layer packaging; while these multi-layer constructs work well, they are impossible to recycle.
Polymers are sometimes criticized for being produced from increasingly scarce petroleum and natural gas. However, the fraction of either natural gas or petroleum used to produce polymers is very low; less than 5 percent of either oil or natural gas produced each year is employed to generate plastics. Further, ethylene can be produced from sugarcane ethanol, as is done commercially by Braskem in Brazil.
How plastic is used
Depending upon the region, packaging consumes 35 to 45 percent of the synthetic polymer produced in total, where the polyolefins dominate. Polyethylene terephthalate, a polyester, dominates the market for beverage bottles and textile fibers.
Building and construction consumes another 20 percent of the total polymers produced, where PVC pipe and its chemical cousins dominate. PVC pipes are lightweight, can be glued rather than soldered or welded, and greatly resist the damaging effects of chlorine in water. Unfortunately, the chlorine atoms that confer PVC this advantage make it very difficult to recycle – most is discarded at the end of life.
Polyurethanes, an entire family of related polymers, are widely used in foam insulation for homes and appliances, as well as in architectural coatings.
The automotive sector uses increasing amounts of thermoplastics, primarily to reduce weight and hence achieve greater fuel efficiency standards. The European Union estimates that 16 percent of the weight of an average automobile is plastic components, most notably for interior parts and components.
Over 70 million tons of thermoplastics per year are used in textiles, mostly clothing and carpeting. More than 90 percent of synthetic fibers, largely polyethylene terephthalate, are produced in Asia. The growth in synthetic fiber use in clothing has come at the expense of natural fibers like cotton and wool, which require significant amounts of farmland to be produced. The synthetic fiber industry has seen dramatic growth for clothing and carpeting, thanks to interest in special properties like stretch, moisture-wicking and breathability.
As in the case of packaging, textiles are not commonly recycled. The average U.S. citizen generates over 90 pounds of textile waste each year. According to Greenpeace, the average person in 2016 bought 60 percent more items of clothing every year than the average person did 15 years earlier, and keeps the clothes for a shorter period of time.
The Conversation US, Inc.
From breast implants to ice cube trays: How silicone took over our kitchens
August 10, 2018
Tim and Mary Boyle Chair in Material Studies and Product Design, University of Oregon
Kiersten Muenchinger does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Oregon
University of Oregon provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
One of my ice cube trays is a small, yellow novelty tray that, when placed in the freezer, molds water into little duck-shaped pieces of ice.
You’ve probably seen ice cube trays like this in all types of shapes, from airplanes to superhero logos.
While these trays have become commonplace, they symbolize how the material used to make them – silicone – has transformed our kitchens over the past two decades.
Silicone was originally invented as an insulating material for high temperature electric motors and would later be commonly used for breast implants. But designers eventually realized that it was an ideal material for a range of household goods.
Mars rovers and … muffin molds?
Design engineers like me love working with silicone because of its durability, flexibility and affordability.
Silicone, also known as polysiloxane, is a polymer – the word scientists use for plastics – that’s known for its rubbery feel.
It also has features that other materials simply don’t have. For example, Mars rovers have silicone parts and coatings because the material is able to withstand extremely high and low temperatures, all while holding its given shape.
Think back to the rubbery silicone ice cube tray. It retains its shape in freezing temperatures but is still flexible enough that it can be twisted to pop out the cubes, without cracking. Then it returns back to its original shape.
There are other flexible polymers that can do this, but they tend to be a bit sticky to the touch – which isn’t the best quality for objects that come into contact with food.
Also, silicones – like most plastics – have low heat conductivity, which means they don’t transfer temperature well. This makes them ideal for muffin forms, loaf pans and Bundt cake pans. You won’t burn your fingers as you’re popping out your baked treats.
If you use silicone bakeware, you won’t burn your fingers as you would with a metal pan. TYNZA
Silicone gets a bad rap
How did this space-age material with incredible properties become a standard material for kitchen products?
It all started with breast implants.
Beginning in the 1970s, silicone was the primary implantable material used for breast implants and other body augmentations. Breast implants used two types of silicone. There was a firm silicone used for the shell and a viscous silicone gel used as the filler.
Safety concerns about silicone breast implants cropped up in the 1980s. Some patients who had received implants complained of fibromyalgia, arthritis and other symptoms. The symptoms seemed to go away when the implants were removed, and people suspected that silicone gel was leaking from the outer shell. This suspicion couldn’t be proven, but the public started to become wary of silicone implants, while the plastic came to viewed as a dangerous material. There wasn’t much of a market for products that used it.
A silicone gel breast implant is shown at a manufacturing facility in Irving, Texas. AP Photo/Donna McWilliam
Yet by this point, chemists and engineers had developed entire catalogs of silicone materials that could withstand a huge range of temperatures, had amazing elasticity and flexibility, and possessed very low thermal conductivity. Importantly, because many were used for breast implants, they had already undergone rigorous safety approvals and certifications. They had also received FDA food-contact certification in the United States.
All that was missing was a vision for how they could be more widely applied, and a public appetite for silicone products.
Perfect for messy kitchen work
In the mid-1990s, I worked in an international design firm that helped companies and startups design new products. One day, two polymer sales technicians came to my workplace with a three-ring binder containing strips of silicone samples.
The strips had been dyed in a wide range of vibrant colors. Some had been molded with different textures, from little bumps to stylish chevron patterns. The samples varied by durometer, a measure of the level of squishiness. Some were translucent, while others were opaque, crystal clear or even filled with glitter.
They told us that they wanted to reboot silicone’s image – to feature it in an array of household products – and asked us for suggestions.
I don’t remember the specifics of what we told them that day. But I wasn’t surprised when, as the years passed, I started seeing more and more silicone being used for kitchen products. It may not have initially been marketed as a silicone product, due to the bad press the material had received. Yet it makes perfect sense for kitchens, which are like mini laboratories – the science and technology centers of a household.
When cooking, we apply extreme heat and extreme cold; transform matter from liquid to solid; and mix, melt, cut, mash and stick.
Silicone makes all of this messy kitchen work much easier.
When you stir biscuit dough, you can grip a silicone mixing bowl much more easily than its slippery porcelain counterpart. The super-sticky dough is easier to clean off a silicone stirring spoonula and a silicone mat, which you can use for rolling out and cutting the rounds. And the bottoms of my biscuits don’t brown as much when using a silicone baking mat.
We know more about silicone now. It is still used in breast implants that are approved by the FDA if the manufacturer agrees to maintain long-term health studies. There is even a brand, Silpat, whose name is a riff on silicone.
I often think about how silicone continues to have a range of important applications, whether it’s in outer space, in motor components or in emergency rooms.
So each time I take out my rubber ducky ice cube tray and pop out some cubes for my seltzer, it’s a nice reminder of how an extraordinarily complex material can play a little role in day-to-day life.
The Conversation US, Inc.