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Monday, 2 May 2011


Chemists are a species of German: when they have something new to name they take all the names of its component parts and string them together.  This is an admirably reductionist approach, but the result is usually something like polytetrafluoroethylene.   If I am reading out loud I have to take a run-up to stand a chance of pronouncing this sort of thing, and I suspect that others - even chemists - have to do so as well.

This is a problem that the computer scientists have attacked and solved.   They are under the constraint that the parsing rules of computer languages don't usually allow them to put spaces in names.   So, if they have a multi-component name, they have somehow to chain it together.  One solution is to use the underscore character, so, for example, a garbage collector heap pointer gets named garbage_collector_heap_pointer.   The other, and more elegant, solution is this: again like the Germans, they use capital letters judiciously; but they don't just put them at the start; they distribute them throughout the name to make its components stand out.  GarbageCollectorHeapPointer is as easy to read and to pronounce as garbage collector heap pointer (though I'll allow it does somehow seem to be in a hurry...)

This is the lesson the chemists need to learn.  Anyone can say  PolyTetraFluoroEthylene on the fly as they encounter it on the page.

PolyTetraFluoroEthylene itself (shown above) is remarkable stuff.  It has this structure:

The fluorine atoms bind so strongly to the carbon that the resulting plastic will easily handle temperatures of 250oC without breaking down.  It also has one of the lowest friction coefficients of any solid substance, and these two characteristics make it an invaluable material throughout the whole of engineering.  Just about the least interesting use of it is the one everyone has heard of: non-stick frying pans.

Another polymer with similar temperature stability is PolyDiMethylSiloxane:

But this acts like a rubber - it is incredibly elastic and makes moulds that are so good that they will reproduce features down below the wavelength of light.  Again, PolyDiMethylSiloxane is one of the most useful of all engineering polymers.  And also again, its least interesting use is the one everyone sees: bathroom sealant.

As far as I know, nobody has ever tried to combine these two ideas to make this stuff:

which, I conjecture, ought to have a considerable number of useful and interesting properties.

I call it PolyDiFluoroMethylSiloxane.

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