Monday, September 25, 2023

Materials science: the rule of three that guides its development

“To paraphrase Shakespeare,” Daniel Ucko told me, “some periodicals are born as materials science journals, some achieve it, and some have materials science thrust upon them.”

Ucko is well placed to observe the changing face of materials science, having originally done a PhD in condensed-matter physics at University College London before spending almost two decades as an editor at Physical Review Letters over at the American Physical Society (APS). While at the APS Ucko also did a PhD in philosophy at Stony Brook University – where I was his supervisor – and earlier this year he became the society’s first head of ethics and research integrity.

Ucko articulated the above principle, which I call the “rule of three”, in an article in the latest book from World Scientific on the history of materials science. Edited by me and due out next year, the book is called Between Science and Industry: Institutions in the History of Materials Research. It conceives of institutions as not just physical laboratories, but as the organizational, educational and regulatory structures needed to carry out research. This overarching structure helps the general reader to understand materials research without much background.

The book follows on from two earlier volumes. The first – Between Making and Knowing – was edited by historians Joseph Martin and Cyrus Mody and covers nearly 50 tools and techniques, ranging from simulations and centrifuges to neutron and synchrotron light sources. The second volume – Between Nature and Society – was edited by the philosopher and historian of science Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and provides the “life stories” of 15 materials, including cement, glass, plastics, rubber and rare earths.

Ucko’s article in volume three, where he makes his Shakespearean reference, examines journals that morphed, for example, from metallurgy to materials science. It looks at journals that spun off from other journals as well as journals that were born as materials-only publications. It also discusses the vast scope of journals, which range from those dedicated to one small sub-field to publications with a broad appeal. There are even materials-science journals that don’t have the word “materials” in their name.

As Ucko’s article reminds us, the topic of materials-science journals is far more complex than it appears, for they play a mediate role. “A journal can only exist if there is a community that wants what it contains,” Ucko told me. “But it’s also building a community through the diversity of articles that it presents. What’s more, communities keep moving, and journals have to keep moving with that.”

It’s all in the name

One way a journal shapes the community it serves is by how it bills itself, which may differ from its actual content. “Look at the launch editorial,” Ucko said. “The editorial in the first issue tells you how it wants to present itself – how it wants to leap into the scene.” Sometimes a publication, such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society, publishes much materials science but does not talk about itself in those terms. Other journals, such as Nature Materials, are explicit about their scope.

One way a journal shapes the community it serves is by how it bills itself, which may differ from its actual content

Some journals have found a need to change direction into materials science, but had to take time to move in the new direction. Take Acta Materialia. Born in 1953 as Acta Metallurgica, it was renamed Acta Metallurgica et Materialia in 1990, and then became Acta Materalia in 1996. “But it’s not like the journal suddenly changed direction, throwing open its doors to a new diversity,” Ucko pointed out. The contents of the first issues after the name changes were still primarily about metallurgy and alloys.

Linn Hobbs, a retired physicist who was formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an entry in the book on materials-science societies. Much of the dynamic that Ucko describes for journals is also evident here. Professional societies are mediators too, helping researchers to do their work and making them realize why it’s worth it. Societies and journals, Hobbs writes, not only make researchers want to “talk the same language” but also provide the forum in which it takes place.

Just as materials-science journals have changed, so too have professional materials-science societies. As Hobbs notes, some of them, such as the Materials Research Society, started out that way while others morphed into the field. But professional materials-science societies are unusual, he notes. Compared with, say, physics or chemistry they tend to be more interdisciplinary and they co-ordinate a broader range of scientific, commercial and industrial interests.

The critical point

So why the rule of three? I see it as about how materials science abruptly became a discipline in its own right in the late 1950s. One was the development of instruments, in particular electron microscopes, that could be used to study previously distinct materials, such as glasses, metals or ceramics.  Another factor was the post-Sputnik demand for materials suitable for use in missiles. Yet another was the progressive unification of previously separated areas by the theory of defects and dislocations.

The confluence of these factors quickly made it unthinkable not to teach – and organize institutional support – for materials science as a unified field. Most of the articles in Between Science and Industry focus on institutions in the second half of the 20th century, after materials science began to warrant specialized institutions. But with the development of biomaterials, nanomaterials, and 2D and quantum materials, as well as the blending of the border between “hard” and “soft” materials, who knows where the field will go next?

The post Materials science: the rule of three that guides its development appeared first on Physics World.

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