Materials Research Activities

History of Materials Research: Changing Boundaries

Changing boundaries

In 1960, there was no field as such with the name materials in it. There was much research going in many other fields that may well now be recognized as materials research, but at the time, scientists did not think of materials research as a coherent field.
By 1975, many institutions were named something with materials; there were for instance several university departments called Materials Science & Engineering. The illustration on the right, taken from the COSMAT report, seeks to position materials science and engineering within a map of disciplines. Note that pure science is in the center and applied at the periphery.
Now, it is no longer feasible to draw any such maps of disciplines. The distinction between pure and applied is no longer seen to work, and many people work in fields that overlap. For example, some people work to apply nanotechniques to research on biocompatible materials and it might still be seen as a part of surface science. Attendees from departments with just about any conceivable name (say, from Electrical Engineering to Molecular Biology) at the annual meetings of the Materials Research Society freely borrow from each other.

These changing boundaries are an important aspect of the history of materials research. It may well be history still in the making: who would wager that the categories we have now will survive forever?

Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) may well be a multi-discipline, rather than a discipline, in the sense that it is so large and diverse that a great many sub-fields can survive within it. It is very similar to chemistry with its sub-fields of organic and inorganic chemistry; or to physics with its division into high-energy and solid state. But perhaps the diversity within the sub-fields of MSE is even greater. If only for this reason, one cannot understand the history of MSE without narrowing one's focus and delving into the peculiarities of some of the sub-fields. However, the term sub-fields conveys a meaning of stability that is inappropriate in materials research. Many of the "sub-fields" in the above list have a degree of autonomy in that they have their own specialized journals and in that university courses and text-books may be focused on just one of them. But the examination of, say, the change in symposia topics of the Materials Research Society (MRS) annual meetings reveals that the overlap between them has changed with time. To convey the dynamic nature of the protean materials research field, we have decided to phrase this category of ours "changing boundaries" instead. We were prompted to do so by the Executive Director of the MRS, John Ballance, and we have had help from many others to find the most appropriate categories of "sub-fields" existing now. We are hoping to find individuals who can help us write the history of each "sub-field". Can you? Then please send an e-mail. One of the points of John Ballance is that materials research differs from an older discipline than physics, in that it seeks more readily to adapt to changes and doesn't define a core activity as its own. The Materials Research Society seeks to stay correspondingly nimble.

This page was last updated on 16 October 2002 by Arne Hessenbruch.