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During a recent holiday I was lying by the pool when my son-in-law (a musician and charity fund-raiser) leaned across and asked What have been the greatest scientific advances of the last 30 years?. I gave this a few seconds thought and replied that I could not think of any which were both of sufficient importance and had made an impact on the world outside science, so that he might be able to relate to them.

As you can imagine, this answer did not satisfy me (or him). I promised to look, on my return to Web access, for the Nobel prizewinners of the last 15 years, as a guide to what somebody thought was important. ( and as a result I can recommend the Nobel website at http://nobelprize.org/ ). I have now done that, but it has not changed my initial view. I looked at the discoveries which had won the Physics, Chemistry and Medicine prizes and they fell into two categories. The first, and by far the largest, consists of topics which I do not understand and know nothing about mea culpa, but also an implicit criticism of the writers of the citations. The second, smaller, category consists of topics which created some excitement at the time but which seem to have (so far) made a negligible impact on society. Examples of this second kind include pulsars, superfluid helium, the fractional quantum Hall effect, high Tc superconductivity and fullerenes.

Three topics out of the 60 or so awards since 1985 do appear to have made an impact and these relate to liquid crystals (which at least everyone in developed societies has seen!), NMR (which many of us have been subjected to) and prions (which all of us hope never to encounter). On detailed examination, however, liquid crystals were discovered in the 1920s, NMR in the 1940s and only prions were genuinely discovered within the last 30 years, in 1982.

The world has definitely changed over the past 30 years, and scientists have been working away and publishing furiously, so what has been going on? This, I believe, is the good news for materials scientists and engineers: Most of the developments which have made an impact on society were the result of engineering, not new science. To take just three examples (perhaps the most obvious ones):

  • We have put a man on the moon and engaged in other space exploits. We knew how to do this long ago and no new physics was involved. It was just necessary to address and solve the (admittedly quite difficult) engineering problems.
  • Computers and optoelectronics have become much smaller and lighter in the past 30 years but little new physics has been called on. Once the transistor had been invented (not discovered) miniaturising it and developing ICs was pure engineering. Likewise developing GaAs, and now GaN, to supplement silicon was pure materials engineering.
  • The human genome project has attracted a huge amount of attention, but no new science is involved: all that has happened recently is that a lot of people have agreed to run rather straightforward (indeed you could say boring) experiments in a coordinated way and pool their results.

How does this translate into our discipline of materials science? We should have the great advantage that we can boast about our engineering developments as well as our scientific advances. But which of these advances has been spotted by the woman or man in the street? I can think of some which have made it to Main Street, but I am less sure that anyone has noticed. GaN traffic lights, nanotubes in automobile fenders, white-light LEDs (I have one on a key-fob but Im sure the family member who gave it to me did not appreciate that this is what it is), nanoparticles in cosmetics, DLC coatings on transparent components, amorphous metal in golf-club heads, MMCs anywhere. Did anybody out there notice any of these, or better still realise that they emerged from the work of materials scientists? When using the cellular video phone of today or the polymeric folding electronic newspaper of tomorrow will anybody stop and think hey, a smart materials scientist enabled this to work. If they dont, we are in long-term trouble as a profession.

Im sure we would all welcome suggestions which illustrate, in an understandable way, the impact of the materials scientist over the past 30 years. I would be happy to collect, collate and publicise these if you respond with your suggestions to the email address below.

Peter Goodhew, 2002