For some time, I have wondered about the lack of intellectual self-confidence in the small group of scientists and engineers, who take about 10% of all engineering degrees, the ‘MSE family’. Where in the world did the idea come from, that materials science is a derivative of physics or chemistry, when a moment’s reflection will show that it is exactly the other way around? Human history is named after our craft: stone, bronze, and iron ages. The technology and science of metal winning, and the creation of sophisticated cements (to take just two familiar examples) is 2000–4000 years old. Many of the elements that Mendeleev put into a periodic table after his prescient dream were encountered, and extracted, by materials scientists. The laws of motion were incarnated first (and are still experienced by most) in the behavior of apples, billiard-, or cannon-balls long before they were formulated as abstract concepts. Electric lights, cars, planes, the real triumphs of 20th century engineering and technology known to, loved, and appreciated by the public, are only miscalled the triumphs of ‘science’. In fact, they were its parents.

That error was part of the period of post-WWII Western social iconography, when science attained the status of theology and the quaint linear theory that science leads to applied science leads to technology was born, and stamped so effectively on today’s unsuspecting ‘science community’, leading to the misdirection of much of the explosion of public largesse towards esoterica. This was the linear dogma inherited by the MSE practitioners of today. But it is now two decades since Yale’s science historian, Derek de Solla Price, made his elaborate case to prove that the linear theory was nonsense, and that in most cases, technology leads to science. He used to say that, “Thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine than vice versa,” i.e. science is largely derived from technology. But the final death knell for the linear theory came as GE, Bell Labs, and IBM redirected their untargeted ‘basic science’ labs towards applications-driven basic research. But it is not only research which has suffered.

The failure of the enterprise (at least in the US) of the science education of the general student was also deeply affected. I have been leading this discussion as part of a national team wrestling with the ignorance of the well-educated American leadership (and of course the public) about the simplest abstract scientific concepts. For example, nearly all recent Harvard and MIT graduates think that seasons are caused by changing distances from the sun. Or study the data on video* from research on the problem.

Now we are ready for a radical change of epistemology. Just as the linear theory of science and technology policy was largely wrong, so is the idea of teaching science to the non-scientist/engineer population via abstractions — laws, formulas — codified in ‘physics’ and ‘chemistry’. Abstract science is ‘Teflon’ science — with near zero sticking coefficient to the memories of most humans. Scientists fool themselves, because for them it did stick.

The case for asserting the centrality of materials (science) in learning (as well as research) is fundamental epistemology. 50 years ago, José Ortega y Gasset observed that, “…the decisive form of our intercourse with things is, in fact, touch… touch and contact are necessarily the most conclusive factor in determining the structure of our world.” Touch is the first sense a child experiences in the womb. Touching, and contact, teach: humans touch materials. We — 90% of us — learn best via things we can touch. We get the ‘feel’ of it! Hence, science for the general public must start with reality. And among the real (touchable) sciences — agriculture, earth, materials, health — the most varied, most accessible, easily and repeatedly, is materials. You learn and remember by touching real stuff, ‘scientific’ explanations enrich that experience of reality. Repetition of contact — which is easy with materials — makes it stick. We are urging a switch from Teflon to ‘Velcro’ science. In all cases, the materials that surround us offer us the ‘gateway’ — the Velcro — to the science the ordinary citizen needs and wants. Not so amazingly, the materials approach has also proved, in real situations, to increase interest and enrollments in physics and chemistry. That is the case at the core of the MAGSTEM (Materials as the Gateway to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education) consortium, headquartered at Arizona State University. It has been meeting for over two years (∼magset). Creating international MSE collaborations are a clear next step.

What I am calling for is for materials scientists and engineers is to reassert the intellectual centrality of their own field compared to the derived/abstract sciences, and insist on an appropriate role in teaching (and research) for ‘materials’, today. Physics is playing out; the bio-revolution looks like it may have peaked; but materials will always be at the center of the life of our necessarily, touch-oriented, human species.

A Private Universe Project Star, Harvard University; Can We Believe Our Eyes? and Lessons from Thin Air Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Collection.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)00866-0