Despite the long history of materials development, materials science as a distinct discipline is relatively new. It only came of age in the 20th century, brought into existence by necessity, as a result two developments. Firstly, industry needed it to understand the complex materials, on which it and society, was becoming ever more dependent such as the silicon chip, jet engine alloys, polymer composites, optical fibres, medical implants, etc. Secondly, it became increasing clear that materials could not be understood by the study of engineering, physics, chemistry or biology alone. So, as the 20th century progressed, so did materials science as a discipline.
We now live in the 21st century and the power of materials science is immense. It is making possible a world where buildings harvest their own energy, bridges heal themselves, clothes monitor a person’s health, and biomaterials increase the average life expectancy to 100 years of age. This all sounds thrilling, but many alternative realities await us, each driven by different cultural, economic and political forces. In these alternative realities, we could find ourselves in the grip of mass migrations, with declining life expectancy, dealing with global pollution and energy blackouts, to name but a few potential scenarios. Which future will we choose?
In this talk, I argue that much hinges on a deeper understanding by materials scientists of all parts of society. To achieve this, public engagement is not enough, the core of the discipline needs to move beyond its current limits in the physical sciences, to a more people-focused approach to materials design and manufacturing. From an educational perspective, this will the require understanding of, or at least an acknowledgment of, the importance of psychology, economics, politics and materials culture. I use a case study of the development of self-repairing cities to illustrate the necessity of such changes to materials science as a discipline.