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nucleusModern physics began in about 1900, with the development of quantum mechanics and relativity, and was in full swing by the 1920s after the Bohr atom gained acceptance. I learnt physics at school in the 1950s from a textbook written by my teacher and called “Modern Physics”. University syllabi still refer to Modern Physics in 2008. The term modern seems rather elastic and, surviving for more than a century, has surely lasted far too long for any cultural movement. Modernism in art only lasted from about 1890 to 1940, a mere 50 years. Materials Science is, in many ways, newer than physics - so what might “modern materials” be? [Don’t get me wrong here: Materials are of course much older than physics, but the scientific approach to materials is not.]

The phrase “modern materials” has variously been applied by different writers either very generally to anything developed in the past 50 years, or more specifically to functional materials or smart materials or green materials, or advanced materials with improved properties or recently to nanostructured materials. By the way, I’m not sure how nanostructure can be considered “modern” when I was taught about GP zones in aluminium alloys in 1961, and it was 25-year-old stuff then.

Painting by RenoirSince “modern” does not work for us, it might be more interesting to borrow from the arts and think of materials science in terms of movements, each lasting about a decade. For example the sixties were a period during which we looked inward – to microstructure and point and lattice defects – and the main targets of our study were metals. We did this in response to the availability of new scientific tools and ideas and in reaction to the empiricism of the first half of the twentieth century. Materials scientists behaved either like Impressionist painters – using scientific insights as the painters used their improved understanding of colour – or like the Pre-Raphaelites, seeking to go back and do a better job than their predecessors. The Pre-Bainite movement perhaps.

In the seventies we started to look seriously at surfaces, again made possible by the development of new techniques (thank you, Kai Seigbahn, who died last year). Now we widened our scope to include polymers and amorphous metals. Perhaps the best analogy here is with the Art Deco movement which flourished in the twenties and thirties and which celebrated the use of a wider range of materials and surface finishes.

The eighties saw two new passions in our discipline – we started in earnest to grow materials atom-layer by atom-layer and we devised lots of composite materials, trying with great success to obtain properties which exceeded the sum of their individual parts. This was our Bauhaus period, characterized by its economic, geometric design and by its respect for materials.

Picture of IpodThe real world intruded heavily in the nineties, when our attention turned to semiconductor materials driven by burgeoning sales of computers and consumer devices. We got much better at modelling and simulation (because experiments are expensive and slow) and we became acutely aware of the interface between biology, medicine and materials. This was our Pop Art phase, which was originally marked by a fascination with popular culture reflecting the affluence of post-war society. It was most prominent in American art but soon spread to Britain – this seems accurate enough for materials science too. Perhaps here we see the start of Post-Modernism, characterised by a move away from the 'highbrow' seriousness of Modernism. If society wants an MP3 player, let’s give it one. Post-modernism, as in the art world, is still with us.

And finally to the first decade of the 21st century, in which the dominant themes seem to be the engineering of the materials life cycle and its energy and carbon costs. The materials which grab the headlines are optical – whether polymers, nanoscale or layered. They emit, transmit or reject light. This is our Op Art phase, in which the Op originally stood for “optical” – albeit not using high tech but clever design – just try looking at a large Bridget Riley painting for more than ten seconds.

So, over five decades we have developed through Pre-Raphaelite, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Pop Art and Op Art movements. The odd thing is, and I hate to point this out, that the art community got there in each case about 40 years before we did. The Pre-Raphealite 1920s align with our Pre-Bainite 1960s; the Art deco thirties with our surface science seventies; down to the Op Art sixties and our millennial fascination with things optical.

What will be the materials science movement of the twenty-tens? I suggest we take a look at the art movements of the nineteen seventies. Let me give you a few ideas to ponder: Post-Minimalism, Installation Art, Neo-Expressionism, Process Art. If I knew what they meant I might be able to help you, but I don’t so I must leave the crystal ball gazing to you, the post-modern reader.

Peter Goodhew, January 2008