Smart stuff – The spider that spun a suspension bridge (2002)

Tony Ryan

Spider silk is an engineering marvel, stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar.

Watch time: 48:00
A still from the 2002 CHRISTMAS LECTURE
Image credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 1 – The spider that spun a suspension bridge

From the 2002 autumn programme:

What connects the tiny spider's web hanging in the dark corner of your ceiling to giant suspension bridges that link towns and countries?

Everything about a spider's web - from the material it is spun from, to the glue that binds it together- is an engineering masterpiece. Built in seconds, it is both the spider's home and the way the spider gathers its food.

Each strand in the web is a highly engineered polymer fibre, 10-times stronger than steel. And when the web gets battered, the spider eats and recycles it - making a new home within minutes.

Just like spiders, we use a wide range of polymer fibres to build the world around us - from the clothes on our backs, to fast food containers and the cables that hold up our buildings and bridges, fibres are everywhere you look.

So for centuries, scientists have been trying to unlock the chemical secrets of the spider's web, hoping to make stronger and more effective fibres fo. use in cables, clothes and super-structures.

This lecture explores how chemistry is trying to mimic the natural world and construct a more ambitious and efficient man-made one. 


Humankind’s ability to control and manipulate the atoms that make up the earth has enabled us to become the dominant species on the planet. From igniting fire with flints to sending text messages on mobile phones, everything we do and use involves a bit of chemical know-how.

This series of lectures will reveal the molecular miracles behind the everyday objects that define our modern world. From the planes, trains and trainers that get us from A to B, to the tasty burgers, chips and ice cream that refuel our bodies…everything around us is the product of ingenious chemical wizardry. Through unique experiments, demonstrations and audience participation events, this lecture series reveals the secrets of how it’s all done and contemplates how it could be done even better.