Are we not masters of the pocket protectors and the conference name tag? Have we not given the world the pleasures of the information age, with associated ‘continual partial attention1’? Look around and observe what we have enabled – everyone multitasking, talking on cell phones while checking e-mail, watching television while surfing the web, and driving while doing all of the above.

This is all the result of our advances across the entire spectrum of materials, from semiconductors to ceramics, metals, polymers, and biomaterials. People on average are living longer and more prosperously than ever before, in part because of our research. The pace of technological and scientific advance means that even developing countries can leapfrog older systems, such as installing fixed-line phone networks, and jump straight to cell phone networks. As another example, it is expected that the introduction of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for solid-state lighting applications will have enormous impact in countries that lack reliable mains power for electric lighting. In the latter case, it has been estimated that widespread adoption of solar-powered LEDs to replace fuel-based lamps will reduce CO2 emissions by an amount equivalent to one third of the UK's annual emissions2. We are even still tweaking the properties of concrete to enable it to become electrically conductive so it can be heated to avoid the accumulation of snow and ice on roads or to shield sensitive equipment from electronic snooping2. Smart concrete-who would have thought it?

We have revolutionized fields from communications and construction to sports medicine and medical implants with our advances in materials. Even the simple tennis racket is now a lightweight marvel of composites and carbon nanotubes that propels the ball at lightning speed. Of course, it hasn't helped an Englishman to win Wimbledon in living memory, but some things are beyond even our powers!

And yet, does the term ‘materials scientist’ provoke anything other than disinterest from the general public? In my local community, I am often asked if I work at the university and the next question is “what department is that?”. When I tell them, the usual response is the polite “Ohhh” with that tilt of the head that says, “geez, if he worked in the athletic association he might have been able to get me football tickets or at least if he was a real doctor I might have gotten some free medical advice.”

A subjective list of the 25 greatest science books ever written contains not a single volume related to materials science3. Of course, the eighth most popular English language novel in the history of the world is Barbara Taylor Bradford's ‘The Woman of Substance4. Having never read it, I'm guessing it wasn't about substances in the materials sense.

Most of the great engineering achievements (and failures - the Titantic, Hindenburg, Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster, Space Shuttle Challenger) all have materials science underpinnings. We are among the most consilient of thinkers, a word made popular by the biologist E. O. Wilson that means combining insights from different scientific disciplines and from different scales of investigation. Who else measures properties from the nano- to the macroscopic scale as we materials scientists do and pulls it all together into a coherent picture?

At one point in the early 1990s, there was a debate in the US as to whether materials science is even a discipline (physics without the equations indeed!). Having nosed around in physics labs and noticed the number of samples that had fingerprints or tape on them, I'm convinced that at least half of the phenomena that physicists report are simple manifestations of poor scientific hygiene. And don't get me started on our colleagues in chemistry, whose buildings are generally awash in stray mixtures of varying degrees of odiferousness and lethality. The long-closed lab of a retired professor of chemistry here at Florida revealed a small cache of the rocket propellant, B2H6. Diborane will ignite spontaneously in moist air at room temperature (remember this is Florida with a touch of humidity!).

Underappreciated we may be, but we doggedly trudge on from one conference session to another. At the recent Materials Research Society Fall meeting in Boston, it was easy to spot the materials scientists among the young and hip in the shopping malls connecting the convention center to the hotels. Those sponsored plastic carrybags and absent mindedly tended coiffures were dead giveaways. But while the rest of the world is slave to the latest fashions and celebrity gossip, we rest content that secretly we set the agenda.

Materials science community - here's to us!

Further reading
[2] The Economist Technology Quarterly, Sep 23, 2006, 30
[3] 25 Greatest science books of all time, Discover magazine, Dec 2006, 58
[4] Harrison, S., Empress of Romance, The New York Times Book Review, Nov 12, 2006, 37

Apparently, continuous partial attention and multitasking are related but I don't have time to look it up and have lost interest already!

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70002-0