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London TubeThe following dialogue between a knowledgeable and eager potential student and a successful high-flying recent undergraduate in materials science was overhead in the subway last week:

Knowledgeable, eager, enthusiastic novice: After a really good guest lecture at high school the other day, I’m convinced that materials provide the foundations of modern society and I’d like to study materials science at university.

Successful high-flying recent undergraduate: That’s a coincidence – I’ve just graduated in materials science from one of the country’s top universities.

BrickwallKEEN: Perhaps you can tell me about your experiences.  I learned that the most-used materials in the world are concrete, brick, stone and steel, so presumably most of your time was devoted to these materials?

SHRUG: Not at all.  We had one course on steel – it took about 3% of our study time – but nobody mentioned concrete or stone.

KEEN: So I guess you spent more time on the other major materials – wood, clay and whiteware ceramics, glass, leather, paper and textiles?  I understand that the world uses  more leather than zinc, for instance.

SHRUG:  Actually it’s about the same tonnage of zinc and leather, but hey, who’s counting? 

handbagKEEN: I bet handbags sell for more dollars per kg than brass!   There seem to be lots of cool new materials around; potato chips come in paper which looks like metal, and my sister just got a new sports car with what she calls goniochromic paint – it seems to be a different colour depending on the direction you look at it.  How do they work?

SHRUG: No idea –we didn’t do paint or paper.

KEEN: So what materials did you study?

SHRUG: I don’t remember any course which was devoted to a particular material, but we did have a couple called “polymers” and one on “ceramics”.  I’m not sure that I know how to make a plastic bucket or a washbasin, but I do know how crystals deform and how it is we can use a reactive metal such as aluminium for saucepans.  And a few of the staff were very enthusiastic about silicon for chips.

KEEN:  OK, so let’s accept that you don’t know anything about the 600 million tonnes of paper we use every year, but you do know why we use 16 million tonnes of copper and a few tonnes of silicon.  What else did you learn?

SHRUG:  We did maths for two years, so I can solve a second order partial differential equation – or at least I could two years ago. 

KEEN:  I assume that you had to use that sort of stuff in your last year or two at university and in your current job.

SHRUG: Oh no, no at all.  I did a project on nickel-based superalloys with lots of microscopy, measuring precipitate sizes and so on.  I guess I had to calculate an average now and again. In my new job I do materials selection using some nifty software, and I have to work out why some components failed, but I never have to do any calculations.

KEEN: I did a bit of homework on professional qualifications and several professional bodies told me that “design” is a key part of all engineering education.  How does this fit into materials science?

SHRUG:  I’m not sure.  I had to spend a week making a steel bracket in “workshop practice”, but I’m sure I didn’t design it.  I did hear about alloy design in a third-year course but none of the Mech Eng students seemed to know what this was.

KEEN:  I bet it was exciting finding out a load of things for yourself.  I guess you use the internet a lot, as well as the library.

SHRUG: Yes, it’s very easy to find a lot of information and then cut and paste it into your report, but the professors were very negative about most of our findings – they accused us of using other peoples’ words and ideas and kept referring to it as plagiarism.

KEEN: So how is life different now you are working in industry?

SHRUG: It’s fun.  My boss keeps sending me off to find out what other people are doing (sometimes quite discreetly when it’s work in another company).  He seems pleased when I put all this stuff into my reports.

KEEN: Isn’t that what you just called plagiarism?  So did your education prepare you for life in industry?

SHRUG: A good plagiarised answer might be “Up to a point, Lord Copper”.


Peter Goodhew, April 2006