Materials Research Activities

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent: Materials science - emerging discipline or composite research field?

Bernadette Bensaude Vincent, Materials science and engineering: an artificial discipline about to explode?

[This paper was originally intended for publication on paper. We have kept the format with footnotes and an appendix intact but cut the paper into parts in order to load them faster. A version of the argument has been published in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. The title of the paper on this webpage was chosen by Arne Hessenbruch; it was intended to be provocative.]


Although materials became an object of scientific inquiry as early as the 17th century, the academic discipline known as Materials Science and Engineering is much more recent. Galileo's 1638 dialog about Two New Sciences laid the foundations of the mechanics of elastic bodies which developed at the fringe of pure science, as a kind of mixed science. It later became an integral part of the program of experimental philosophy developed by Robert Hooke at the Royal Society, by Mariotte in France, and Jacob Bernoulli in Switzerland. However, only in retrospect can we identify these studies of wood, iron and steel as a proto-science of materials, because there was nothing like a notion of materials in general at the time. [1] This tradition, which has been part of the training of engineers since the 19th century, is not the source of modern materials science.This paper starts from a clear distinction between materials research encompassing many research activities conducted in various departments and institutional settings around the world and Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), a discipline that emerged within a specific historical and geographical context: the American universities in the 1960s. This paper is essentially about MSE. It is an attempt to understand the dynamics of the emergence of this discipline in the US academic world and to point out the local circumstances and forces at work. Unlike Robert Cahn's recent book entitled The Coming of Materials Science that provides a valuable "pointilliste portrait of the discipline, to be viewed from a slight distance", I attempt a general narrative. [2] This narrative is focused on two questions. Firstly: What can be the consistence of a field of research that includes such diverse subjects as wood, concrete, paper, polymers, metals, semi-conductors, and ceramics? The generic concept of materials is in itself a challenge because each material is a singular, if not a unique substance with specific properties adapted to specific functions. Consequently how could materials be objects of science according to the old Aristotelian saying: "there is no science but of the general". What is a material in general? Unlike matter this notion refers to a substance that is useful or of value for human purposes. Materials are usually defined as "substances having properties making them useful in machines, structures, devices, and products". The notion of materials combines natural science and humanities: it combines physical and chemical properties with social needs, civilization, industrial or military interests. From this coupling of natural and human aspects embedded in the definition of materials follows one characteristic feature of materials science. Knowing and producing are never separated; the cognitive purpose and the technological interests are intertwined. Materials science couples scientific research with engineering application of the end product. In the USA this domain is known as materials science and engineering, and the report of the National Academy issued in 1975 makes it clear that "one should speak of materials science and engineering as an it rather than them". [3] Here is a science made of a cluster of specialists from various disciplines (metallurgists, ceramists, electrical engineers, chemical engineers, physicists, inorganic chemists, organic chemists, crystallographers, and so on). What do they share?Whereas the professional activity of highly specialized physicists may be totally different, they share a common culture acquired at an earlier stage and can still present themselves as physicists. Individuals can imbibe the identity of the discipline. By contrast, few contemporary materials scientists or engineers define themselves saying  "I am a material scientist. Most of them present themselves as physicists, or chemists, or metallurgists or mechanical engineers, chemical engineers. They are defined by their respective background rather than by their current field of research. The reason for this contrast is that the diversity offered by materials science is not of the same kind as the diversity of such disciplines as physics or chemistry. It does not result from a process of diversification within a field keeping some cohesion. It is the product of an aggregation of several specialties already separate.The second concern of this paper is to try to identify the driving forces that converged into the emergence of the discipline in the USA. On several occasions over the past 50 years materials scientists wrote historical pieces to recast the past of their field. More than often the emergence of materials science is described as the outcome of an internal movement of modern science towards increasing abstraction. In this view the generic notion of materials instantiates the transition from an empirically based technology to an era when the properties of materials were understood on the basis of rational sciences. The advanced materials created by MSE can be presented as a new episode of the secular process of emancipation of mankind from nature. Because they are no longer extracted from nature, new materials are supposed to testify to the increasing power of mankind to create artifacts. Man and man's needs are the supposed driving force as indicated by a report of the National Academy of Science published in 1975 and entitled Materials and Man's Needs. However with such general considerations about human nature the identity of the various agencies that converged into the ermergence of MSE in the USA remains obscure. Did it result from an internal evolution of the various disciplines that merged into this new entity? Was it the creature of political measures coming from the top? The balance between bottom-up and top-down constraints presumably changed over forty decades. Therefore a kind of periodization may be helpful in order to get a finer understanding of the causal dynamics at work.

Crystals and interdisciplinarity (1957-1970)

[1] As an example of this perspective, see Stephen L. Sass, The Substance of Civilization. Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998)

[2] Cahn, Robert, The Coming of Materials Science, Pergamon Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2001.

[3] National Academy of Science, Supplementary report of the committee on the survey of materials science and engineering (COSMAT), Washington, DC: National Academy of Science, 1975, vol. 1, p. 1-3. The same report defined MSE: "Materials science and engineering is concerned with the generation and application of knowledge relating to composition, structure, and processing of materials to their properties and uses". p. 2-2.

This page was last updated on 15 November 2001 by Arne Hessenbruch.