Eternal Questions

My first tentative toe-dip into the Blogosphere turned out to be less scary than I imagined: No abusive messages or trolls, a little bit of enthusiasm via Twitter, email and the “Responses” section on the blog, and even an encouraging “Pingback” (thank you Hortense), which was certainly a new concept to me. Perhaps the most interesting response, however, came from my husband whose breakfast-time german-irregular-verbs memorization I interrupted by placing a printout of my blog pointedly next to his birchermuesli. “You can’t call What is Materials Science? an eternal question”, he said after a few minutes’ perusal, “It hasn’t been around long enough”.

Now for the sake of domestic harmony, I do have to admit he has something of a point. The first academic Materials Science departments started to emerge from Classical Metallurgy or Ceramics departments only around 60 years ago, prompted in part by US fears of Soviet supremacy in the Cold War. According to the Northwestern University Materials Science and Engineering Department’s web page, they were the first Department of Materials Science to be established (in 1958) in the world, with other institutions in the US and Europe following soon after. For a detailed history of the development of Materials Science and Engineering as a teaching discipline, I found this article by Clive Ferguson very informative.

But in terms of Materials Science as an activity, I would argue that I am on safe ground, since questions about the science of materials have occupied us, maybe not quite for eternity, but at least since the start of human consciousness. In fact, from the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, to today’s Silicon Age, every major advance in human civilization has been driven by a fundamental development in Materials Science, so much so that we even name our historical eras after the materials that dominated at the time. Without the early materials scientists who figured out processing techniques for natural materials such as stone, tools for grinding or cutting would not have been developed and there would have been no Neolithic Revolution. And whoever worked out the smelting process to extract metals from their ores (a truly remarkable development, since it needs a temperature above the melting point of the metal and a reducing atmosphere!) ushered in the Bronze Age with its establishment of cities and the beginnings of craft and trade. Through the Iron Age and ultimately culminating in the industrial revolution, metallurgists rightly held a highly respected place in society; my personal favourite is the responsibility borne by the “Anvil Priesthood” blacksmiths of Gretna Green, charged with marrying young couples who eloped to Scotland to escape the confines of the 1753 English Marriage Act.

Now we have moved on to the Silicon Age, with silicon-based transistors forming the core of the microelectronics that enable much of our modern way of life. And we have grown accustomed to tremendous ongoing improvements in silicon devices driving the “Moore’s Law” exponential increase in their capabilities that allows ever more automation and convenience in our everyday activities. We know, however, that we are starting to run into fundamental physical limits, set by the size of the individual silicon atoms, that will prevent ongoing miniaturization of silicon-based devices. We know that to continue the march of human progress, we will soon be forced to develop new device paradigms based on entirely new materials; to figure out the next step beyond the Silicon Age.

So the Materials Scientists that we are educating today will be charged with defining the next era of human civilization, and we are charged with training them in how to do that. That’s quite a challenging task! But at least these days we have another profession taking care of the wedding ceremonies…

(You can watch a video version of these thoughts combined with a mildly political diversity manifesto (and see me very very nervous) here.)

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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2 Responses to Eternal Questions

  1. Heather says:

    I am so glad to read these perspectives, as my daughter has become keen enough about Materials Science that she is breathlessly waiting to find out if she has the final grades to be admitted to a program in that discipline, in another country. Will look forward to more and to sending her links to your posts, if ever her current dreams are not crushed next week.

  2. Nicola Spaldin says:

    Dear Heather, Fingers crossed that your daughter gets the grades she needs! Best wishes, Nicola

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