It seems that it is nearly impossible to be fond of expanded polystyrene foam. Everyone has their pet hates about the material. Its squeak, for instance, curdles the brain much like the scratch of fingernails on a blackboard. A summer's day at the seaside, is characterised by bins full with crumpled polystyrene cups, which inevitably overflow and are swept along the beach like giant mutant moths. Its nonstick abilities are held against it as we see our favorite snack curl up in its embrace. The sensation of accidentally biting into it is simply excruciating.

The material has miraculous properties, however. It is light, inert, tough, and an excellent thermal and sound insulator. Despite this, polystyrene foam is slowly but surely being ejected from the domestic scene. We throw large lumps of it out of our houses like uninvited guests, despite its vital role as bodyguard to our computers while in transit. It is being replaced by materials we love more, like cardboard and bubble wrap. That is not to say that the production of this extraordinary material is on the decrease, but rather like the unloved phantom of the opera, it is going undercover. Polystyrene is increasingly being used in construction as structured insulated panels combined with concrete and finished with plaster. The low density and excellent thermal and vibrational insulation properties of walls built in this way are ideal for buildings that experience extreme temperatures or environmental conditions, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. What is attractive about these applications is that the material is not used as temporary packing material but as a permanent part of the fabric of the building. This turns the environmental problem of polystyrene on its head, since it repays the embedded energy many times over during the life of the building by reducing both the heating and cooling costs.

Since polystyrene is 95% air- and waterproof, the material is highly valued by sailors. It can't be punctured, so huge chunks of it are used to make floating jetties and other craft. Because the material is tough and immune to the corrosive attack of the sea, these applications have long life spans; at sea you can rely on this material, it saves lives, as it does in another undercover operation, the bicycle helmet.

Chunks of polystyrene the size of automobiles are beloved by the sculpting community. They are easy to carve using hot-wire cutters and can be painted and transported with ease. Thus the special-effect industry are big users of polystyrene. Movies would not have many of their epic qualities without this material. Mock-ups of temples, palaces, and even the iconic shoot out in the federal building in The Matrix are as convincing as they are thanks to polystyrene.

It is a material of fantasy, amusement parks are full of huge polystyrene cartoon characters. In an odd way, the material mirrors the character of these cartoon worlds: it is larger than life, fluffy, harmless, but when it intrudes into our sensual world, it becomes sinister.

The difficulty of recycling is also associated with the dark side of this cheerful squeaky material. It has such a low density that unless it is collected on an industrial scale the economics make it unfeasible to recycle – another reason why it is on retreat from the domestic environment.

There is also a finesse to polystyrene. Micron-sized spheres of polystyrene can be made easily by an emulsion technique. These spheres can be chemically labeled and are used as workhorses to tag and keep track of all sorts of microscale activities in biological cells. Because the manufacturing route produces monodisperse particles of high accuracy and uniformity, polystyrene spheres have an another property: they self assemble into crystals of incredible perfection. These perfect assemblages of micro-spheres are similar in structure to naturally occurring silica mineraloid opals used in jewelry.

Polystyrene opals are also used in one of the most high-tech and cutting edge areas of materials science, namely photonics, where they are used to design and manufacture waveguides and optical switches.

Polystyrene is an extraordinary material, it is used to make six-foot-high cartoon characters, buildings, and photonic wave-guides. It protects our heads, it protects our computers, and by keeping fish cool, allows us to eat sushi in the middle of the dessert. And yet, we are not even remotely grateful. How can this be? Surely it is because we have a sensual abhorrence of the material. You can not wrap it around you in any satisfying way, you dare not lick it. You cannot fold it, and if you try, it bleeds little plastic spores that remain around for ages as if in silent protest at our violent molestation. It is our genius child whom we do not love.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71606-6