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'Rust doth corrupt'

Don't drop it," my father cautioned as he carefully handed me the ceramic knife. "It will shatter like porcelain." The thick white blade rested on my upturned palms, innocuous yet lethal.

I had already seen its fierce cutting edge effortlessly slice through a sheet of paper, clean and silent. And like Excalibur that sat on the lake bottom without tarnish or dulling, this little Japanese knife would never rust or go blunt.

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The one drawback - one that King Arthur never had to contend with - was its fragility. Drop it on the counter top, tap it too hard, or knock it to the floor and it would break instantly and irreparably.

The knife was one of a stream of unusual finds from my father's travels and ended up sitting unceremoniously in a kitchen drawer - greatly admired and rarely used.

As a materials scientist, he was always on the lookout for new coatings, alloys, oxides - and especially anything that wouldn't rust. "For 'rust doth corrupt,' " he used to say with a twinkle in his eye.

Although strength rather than corrosion-resistance is the focus of Lori Valigra's story at right, she captures some of this fascination with new materials that are stronger, finer, lighter - even run-proof (the ultimate pantyhose.)

Here, nature's fine engineering is used as a template. And the humble spider proves to be a master craftsman.

So before you swipe that web in the corner, just remember that those fine strands, combined to pencil thickness, can pull a jet to a halt on an aircraft carrier.

And be glad you're not a fly.

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*Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor. Comments? Send e-mail to:

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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