Although press releases often use terms such as "breakthrough", "cutting edge", "turning point" and the media themselves focus on the "major advance" as if it represented a "paradigm shift" or "major revolution" in the field. However, it is rare that any scientific iteration is truly worthy of the label. On the whole, science moves forwards in "baby steps", sometimes taking detours and not advancing but shifting laterally as new data surrounding a particular phenomenon emerge.

This is very much the case in biomedical science where rare indeed is the true revolution that will lead to a cure for a given disease. On the whole, this enormous and rather significant area of human endeavour leads to tiny shifts and when a leap forward is to be made it is often a leap of faith. Just consider the idea that stomach ulcers have a bacterial cause and can be cured with antibiotics as opposed to the decades-old received wisdom that had clearly proved stress was at the root of that health problem. In the world of science, perhaps most misconceived is the idea of how Einstein developed his theory of relativity and the universal light speed limit. His "revolutionary" work was not created from nothing; it was founded on countless discoveries made in the nineteenth century by Maxwell, Helmholtz and Michelson & Morley.

So too in the world of materials science. While to the lay public the "wonder material" graphene seemingly tore a strip off other substances when it was peeled from a pencil-scribbled glass slide with a piece of sticky tape, the concept of isolating a single layer of graphite had been touched on in the nineteenth century and certainly discussed in the 1960s by Hanns-Peter Boehm. Similarly, in the world of energy and the so-called hydrogen economy, fuel cells that act like organically pumped electrochemical cells were first described by German physicist Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838.

In the world of materials, we hear a lot of breakthroughs in energy and electronics technology from the agenda-ridden press office and media, but in truth the paradigm shift is so rare as to be insignificant. Indeed, although countless teams are working on new materials for microelectronics, processing, data storage etc, one should consider that developments that lead to an order of magnitude faster, denser, smaller or even a doubling are not breakthroughs at all. Moreover, the industry itself only plans with its developmental roadmaps to "double" transistor density every 18 months or so. It is not that Moore's Law is some kind of empirical predictor of how quickly computers will become more powerful it is actually just the rule that the industry follows to allow it to roll out new products at a reasonable rate. After all, if there were a true breakthrough that led to a million-fold faster computer we could defer that next upgrade for many more years than the 18-month renewal foisted on us today.

I learned this week that Robert Colwell, director of the Microsystems Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is predicting an end to Moore's Law. He revealingly points out that the economics are no longer viable to keep this technological treadmill rolling. I understand his thought process. But, cynical as I am, I live in hope. As materials scientists keep taking those scientific baby steps forwards, sideways and perhaps even backwards sometimes, it is inevitable that one day they will take a "giant step" and a press release somewhere, some day, will use the phrase "cutting-edge, paradigm-shifting breakthrough" with impunity.
David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".