The Journey from Magic to Science | Inspiration | The Glass Age

The Journey from Magic to Science

Glass is one of the most transformative materials of all time, responsible for numerous innovations from windows to telescopes to fiber optics.  Yet despite this storied history, Corning believes we are living in the Glass Age today. One reason is the progress we have made on our journey from magic to science.

For centuries, the Lycurgus Cup confounded observers with its mysterious ability to appear jade-green when lit from the front and ruby-red when lit from the inside. The cup was created in the 4th century, but people didn’t understand until relatively recently that the effect was caused by the presence of microscopic silver and gold particles. When monks used early spectacles as reading aids, they didn’t understand how the eye refracts light and focuses images. When Murano glassmakers created extraordinarily clear crystal in the 15th century by melting river stones with plant ash, they almost certainly didn’t understand how silica interacted with sodium and manganese. With no comprehensible explanation at hand, people believed that magic was behind those creations.

“Today, we understand how different formulation and fabrication techniques determine the atomic state and structure of a glass. That allows us to precisely control its mechanical, chemical, thermal, and optical properties,” explains Jeff Evenson, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Corning Incorporated. “Our understanding of glass physics and chemistry also reduces our dependence on serendipity and time-consuming trial-and-error experimentation. We now use sophisticated modeling techniques to predict how a glass will behave. This knowledge has dramatically accelerated the design and development of new industrial glasses.”

Corning has a 165-year history of glass innovations; yet some of our most recent breakthroughs have happened in relatively quick succession. In the past decade, Corning scientists have developed chemically strengthened glass 1mm thick that can withstand the impact of a baseball travelling at more than 100 km/h; thin strands of optical fiber that can wind around a pencil without losing signal quality; flexible glass that is slimmer than a dollar bill; and antimicrobial glass that suppresses the growth of mold, mildew, fungi, and bacteria.

Of course, Corning is not the only one forging new frontiers in glass. For example, scientists at Mo-Sci Corporation have developed bioactive glasses that heal flesh wounds by stimulating the body’s natural defenses. 

The futurist Arthur C. Clark famously remarked, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the latest glass innovations are proving his point. But at Corning, we believe we’re just getting started. Evenson notes, “To date, scientists have combined silica with approximately 50 elements to develop unique glass compositions. But we have the potential to use the entire Periodic Table in countless combinations. To drive that point home, imagine you’re holding an Oxford English Dictionary in your hands and think of how many words you can make using only 26 letters. That’s why we believe some of the greatest glass innovations still lie ahead.”

Glass can help make our world cleaner, our lives healthier, our experiences richer, and our knowledge more expansive. So you could say that the Glass Age is really about turning science back into magic.