There is so much happening in materials: novel composites, nanostructured morphologies, biomimetic materials, biomaterials themselves, materials for solar energy conversion, highly porous materials for energy and gas storage...preparation, modification, characterisation. Seemingly, never a day goes by without at least half a dozen incredible breakthroughs in materials science and technology that are, according to the press releases announcing this or that research paper or conference, going to change our lives forever and hopefully for the better.
I don't mind. It gives me plenty to write about. Currently, I am preparing reports for five such developments that we have selected for news highlights in the journal. It keeps me busy, as they say. But, just how important are each of these iterations? I do wonder sometimes.
Without wishing to cast aspersions on the validity or viability of any of the research projects I am preparing to submit to the magazine's news section, it does seem that much of the research that reaches a readership beyond the specialist conference circuit and a few niche journals (with the occasional Science or Nature for good measure), is very much iterative. Having worked on the editorial side of peer-reviewed journals many years ago and knowing not a few researchers as personal friends, I recognise that publication remains a "do or die" activity, at least figuratively speaking. Damned, if you do, but certainly damned if you don't.
These research iterations, the small steps that might lead some day to giant leaps are important. Important to the research team that carried them out. Important to those assessing the value added of such a research team at their establishment. Important to the grant givers and the funders. And, perhaps, to a lesser extent, important to other teams taking their own small steps. But, as the work filters out into the wider world, one has to wonder just how important is that latest modification to that nano material that tunes the wavelength at which it emits from one part of the spectrum to a closely neighbouring part a few nanometres along. That solar energy conversion efficiency was raised, from 4.65% to 4.67%. A small step indeed, but is it important enough that the international media or even the news pages of a solar energy magazine need to know.
There is a bright and busy industry involved in taking less than shiny discoveries and buffing them up to give them a media-friendly gloss. It happens in materials, and energy, it happens even more emphatically in medical research. It's apparently endless. Feeding an insatiable news appetite for science that persists despite the doom-mongers who claim the public affinity for the subject has waned.
As I write these words, however, the phrase "biting the hand that feeds you" springs to mind, and I feel a sudden urge to back-pedal a little. I am, of course, more than happy to write about the latest research no matter how apparently small the steps it takes might be.
One never knows which particular iteration is going to turn out to be truly the next big step. I remember writing about innocuous carbon-structures for popular science magazines back in the 1990s. At the time, it was fundamental research with no obvious applications. The materials, which were nicknamed buckyballs and buckytubes had none of the palpable wealth-creation potential of other materials and yet...within a few years those materials had spawned a complete research of their own with products and applications distilling up from laboratory bench to industry and with enormous potential in the shrinking arena of microelectronics and beyond. Not all the footprints left by those small steps lead to giant leaps, but I'd rather be there, ready and waiting, for when they do.
David Bradley blogs at http://www.sciencebase.com and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".