Soft Matter Solutions

A dozen or so polymer jellyfish float in an aquarium in Tommy Angelini’s engineering lab, not alive but freaks of nature nonetheless, about to rock the world.

Just months ago, these jellyfish could not have existed; there was no way to make something so soft. That changed in 2014. Angelini was exploring ways to create fragile arrays of cells when he realized the contraption he had cobbled together not only did what he wanted it to do, but much, much, much more.

As experiments piled up — let’s try this, what if we try that — the contraption met every challenge, and doors long closed to scientific inquiry sprang open.

A new age of engineering, the Age of Soft Matter, had arrived.

As Angelini worked, he updated colleague and mentor Greg Sawyer on the eerily soft objects coming out of his lab. Sawyer issued a challenge.

"As engineers, you look at a jellyfish, and you say, that’s utterly impossible, how on earth could we manufacture that thing," says Sawyer. "You want to make something? Make a jellyfish."

Angelini did, and Sawyer says, "Now, let’s cross that off the impossible list, and get started."

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