An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

A Simulated Sky

Posted by xbanguyen on August 10, 2014

summerSkyEarly summer morning stops being a cliché when you catch a glimpse of that peculiarly blue sky standing by the kitchen window at five nursing a hangover from reading past two. It has been some years but that blue sky is still dependable, the anticipation of traveling, airborn, to somewhere can still be conjured up. If you need to simulate that blue sky, would silica gel work? AerogelChemistryAfter all, silica gel is 98% air, and holding it in your hand has been compared to holding a piece of sky. Now you must agree that there is an extreme beauty in that simile, and it has been said that in every extreme beauty there is an extraordinary disproportionality. Accepting that premise, you would not be surprised to find out that aerogels are known for their extremely low densities  which range from 0.0011 to ~0.5 g cm-3. The production of silica gels involves the reaction of a silicon alkoxide with water in a solvent such as ethanol or acetone in the presence of basic, acidic, and/or fluoride-containing catalyst. In this technique, a silicon alkoxide serves as the source for the silica, water acts as a reactant to help join the alkoxide molecAerogelules together, and a catalyst helps the underlying chemical reactions go fast enough to be useful; silicon alkoxides are usually non-polar liquids, however, they are not miscible with water. To compensate, a solvent such as ethanol or acetone, which is miscible with both silicon alkoxides and water, is added in order to get everything into the same phase so the necessary chemical reactions can occur. That word “miscible” is entreating, but let’s just be content with noting it for now. What comes out takes on an ethereal beauty. See for yourself. The ephemeral nature of the summer sky notwithstanding, I am still bound by this surly bond of earth and sometimes must make do with the beauty of wood. It is no great hardship, however, as evident in this poem


The poem accentuates the sensation of permanence as it quietly sings the stoicity and enduring nature of wood. To be reminded that books being rustling wood moves me – the murmur of the pages has always been a favorite sound. The usefulness of books because they are pliable when held in my hands becomes evident  after reading under the sun and I need to shade my eyes for a quick nap; the e-reader just does not provide the same tactile experience. It is so easy to let go with the scent of paper so close, the sand beneath, the instant darkness allowing stardust to shimmer under my eyelids at midday as I fell asleep mulling over  NASA’s congruous use  of aerogels to catch particles from passing comets.


Thank you, dear muse for the paradox of being present in your absence.



1) The aerogel photo and chemical composition are from

2) The “surly bond of earth” is from the poem High Flight”  byJohn Gillespie McGee Jr.

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