BOX 1.1 What Is Materials Science and Engineering?

Where Did MSE Come From?

Although materials and processes have fueled technological progress for thousands of years, the field of MSE per se did not exist before the 1960s. It is, therefore, a relatively young discipline in comparison with physics, chemistry, and related engineering fields. MSE became a single discipline through the evolution and coalescence of three materials-specific fields—metallurgy, ceramics, and polymer science. Although many other disciplines—for example, physics, geology, electronics, optics, chemistry, and biology—continue to bear on MSE and have made indispensable contributions to its development as a formal discipline, these three materials-based fields remain at the heart of MSE.

In the early days of MSE as an academic discipline and a subject of R&D endeavor, practitioners came mostly from physics, chemistry, engineering, metallurgy, the earth sciences, and mathematics. With the growth of biomaterials, medical practitioners, biologists, biochemists, and biophysicists have joined in. Increasingly, as the field emerged in its own right, MSE practitioners were trained in materials departments established at engineering or physical sciences schools in universities here and abroad. Nevertheless, despite 50 years of developing, maturing, and gaining broad acceptance, agreeing on an all-encompassing definition for MSE as a discipline remains a challenge. The origins and nature of MSE remain varied and interwoven, and any definition of the field must reflect the richness and diversity of all the activity related to “materials.”a

What Is a Material?

A good place to start defining MSE is to consider what a material is. A simple definition would be that a material is the stuff from which an article, fabric, or structure is made.b This definition, however attractive because of its simplicity, does not reflect the full diversity of the study of materials. Because most articles, fabrics, or structures are considered to be solids, how would the study of liquids and gases fit into such a definition of materials? It would not, yet the study of liquids and gases is of central importance to many areas of MSE, such as materials processing, understanding the structure of many biological systems, investigating colloidal systems, and studying liquid crystals. A more thorough definition might be this: Matter is a “material” when that form of matter has structural, optical, magnetic, or electrical use.c


NRC, Materials and Man’s Needs: Materials Science and Engineering, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press (1979); Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s: Maintaining Competitiveness in the Age of Materials, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press (1989).


Definition based on that found in the Oxford English Dictionary.


From Aims and Objectives of a Degree in Materials Science, written by Adrian Sutton, Department of Materials, Oxford University, United Kingdom.

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