An eminent scientist once asked me to define exactly what materials science is. Discussing the question, we concluded that it is the study of all non-living materials. Or is it?

Traditionally, that is precisely what materials researchers have occupied themselves with. Now, however, a different emphasis is emerging. Not content with a position at the intersection of physics, chemistry, and engineering, materials researchers are now eyeing up the potential in biological and medical science. Not only are there new research funds to be found, but a raft of new problems and potential new applications. This issue’s interview with George Whitesides (page 48) highlights one example — nanotechnology. While the drive to smaller and smaller dimensions was initiated by the microelectronics industry in its efforts to increase speed and maximize manufacturing output, it is rapidly becoming clear that some of the most interesting — and potentially revolutionary — applications of nanoscale science and technology will lie in other areas.

This trend was in clear evidence at the recent Materials Research Society Fall Meeting in Boston. If it wasn’t ‘nano’ it was ‘bio’, and preferably it was both in order to draw a crowd. There is an interesting dichotomy in the reaction to this new direction in materials research, however. From one standpoint it can be seen as an ‘invasion’ — with ‘traditional’ materials science fighting to hold back the incursion of all things biological. Other reactions are more enthusiastic — welcoming the challenges with open arms.

Each side has a valid point. On the one hand there is without a doubt plenty of interesting and important questions to be resolved in traditional materials science, without resorting to trendy buzzwords and jumping on biological bandwagons. On the other, however, there is a wealth of issues in biological and medical science to which materials researchers could bring a new and welcome insight, as well as vital expertise. And there certainly should be no reason to discourage such collaboration and discourse between different disciplines. After all, one of the most crucial discoveries of the 20th century that spawned the field of molecular biology — the structure of DNA — was the result of a collaboration between two physicists, a physical chemist and a biologist.

One by-product of this invasion/innovation, could be the attraction of a new generation of students to materials science. Just as biological science with its higher public profile — and perception, whether justified or not, of being useful and dynamic — has seen an explosion in size in recent decades, materials science could, by association, also receive a boost in numbers, particularly at the student level.

The boundaries are most certainly blurring and increasingly materials researchers are looking to nature for inspiration as well as new materials to work with. However, it is also important not to throw the baby out with the bath water (as the old phrase goes) and remember what it is that materials does best. (Answers on a postcard please…)

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05101-5