Smart stuff – The trainer that ran over the world (2002)

Tony Ryan

What connects the trainers on your feet to a jumbo jet flying 40,000 feet up in the air?

Watch time: 48:47
Tony Ryan standing behind two tyres in the Ri theatre
Image credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 2 – The trainer that ran over the world

From the 2002 autumn programme:

What connects the trainers on your feet to a jumbo jet flying 40,000 feet up in the air?

From pole-vaulting to attaining supersonic speeds, getting around the planet relies on some nifty chemical trickery. Take training shoes - a miracle of modern science. The average pair lasts just six months. But in that time, they will have run hundreds of miles, absorbed hundreds of litres of sweat and withstood thousands of tonnes of impact.

How they survive even a single lap of the stadium is due to some miraculous chemistry that lurks beneath their flashy skin - a hidden world of impact cushioning gel, height propelling air pumps, moisture absorbing insoles and breathable foot-hugging coatings.

Probe further, and you'll uncover the chemical secret that connects your trainers to a jumbo jet: Glue! Two tonnes of the same sealant that keeps the soles on your trainers stop a jumbo jet from falling apart in mid-air. How do these adhesives work? And how can they be stronger than metal rivets? What is the difference between adhesion and grip? Which has the most grip, the wheels of a racing car or the soles on your shoes? How do insects walk up walls? Can we ever mimic this and become real-life Spidermen? Could we make materials that know when to hold and when to let go?

This lecture will answer these questions by exploring the chemistry that propels people around the planet. 


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.