Materials Science

Materials Science

Materials science


18th century Europe, pioneering advances in chemistry, physics, and engineering


Interdisciplinary field that studies, develops, and applies new materials


Energy production • Computing • Medicine


Enabled revolutionary technologies from superconductors to advanced ceramics, shaping the modern world

Materials Science

Materials science is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses the study, development, and application of new and advanced materials. It draws on principles from chemistry, physics, engineering, and biology to understand the relationships between a material's atomic/molecular structure, its macroscopic properties, and its performance in various contexts. The origins of materials science can be traced to 18th century Europe, when pioneering work in chemistry, crystallography, and metallurgy laid the foundations for the field.

Roots in the 18th Century

The seeds of materials science were first planted during the Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s. Advances in chemistry, physics, and engineering allowed researchers to begin systematically studying the structures and behaviors of different substances at the molecular and atomic scales. Key developments included:

These early insights sparked growing interest in controlling and engineering the properties of materials, laying the groundwork for materials science as a distinct field.

Innovations in the 19th Century

The 19th century saw an explosion of scientific discoveries and technological innovations driven by materials research. These included:

These and other breakthroughs laid the technological foundations for major industries including electronics, plastics, aerospace, and energy production.

Materials Science as a Discipline

By the late 19th century, the study of materials had become complex and specialized enough to warrant its own dedicated academic field. Universities began offering programs in "materials science and engineering," pulling together the disparate strands of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and other relevant disciplines.

Prominent early centers of materials research included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Cambridge, and the École Polytechnique in France. Eminent scholars like Morris Cohen, William Hume-Rothery, and Alan Cottrell helped define the scope and methods of the new discipline.

Impact on Technology

The accelerating pace of materials innovation in the 20th century transformed nearly every sector of industry and society. Key applications included:

Materials science has been a crucial driver of technological change, underpinning everything from the computer revolution to the development of fusion power and space travel. Its future promises continued breakthroughs, from metamaterials to quantum computing.

Frontiers of Materials Science

Today, materials science remains a vibrant and rapidly evolving field at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Current areas of intensive research and development include:

As our fundamental understanding of the physical world continues to advance, the potential applications of materials science only keep expanding. The field remains essential to tackling grand challenges in energy, health, computing, and beyond.