Anthony Kelly: what is materials science?

Anthony Kelly on the recent history of materials science.

I’m Anthony, Tony, Kelly, a retired professor of Materials Science, when I first started it used to be called Metallurgy. Well you just have to look around you and all the apparatus in this room, the clothes you’re wearing, the … the motorcar you came in, the rubber tyre that was on that motorcar, those are made of materials. Engineering materials, all engineering artefacts are made out of some material. It could be cardboard, it could be stone, it could be steel; those are the materials that we deal with. Cambridge in the 1960s was an extremely exciting place in many subjects. The discovery of the structure of DNA was behind us, since that had occurred in 1953, but the Nobel Prizes for Crick and Perutz and people like that were coming through, we had a Nobel Prize in Physics in Josephson. We had a professor of Physics, Nevill Mott, a wonderful physicist who had brought the Cavendish through the transition away from Nuclear Physics. And in Materials Science we had attracted Alan Cottrell, one of the foremost metallurgists, now called materials scientist, of his generation. And he came to us, having started life at the University of Birmingham, he had been through the Atomic Energy Authority where he had been a major figure in solving various problems with nuclear energy, and he was young and leading people like me. The main difference has been the recognition that the way the properties of a metal are controlled by the atoms within inside it, that the same type of rule would apply to ceramics and to plastics. Now plastics were only invented early in the 20th century, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s their structure was being unravelled, the structure of metals was being unravelled, ceramics were becoming very important for high temperature applications and their structure was being unravelled, and there were certain rules that applied to all three. So previous to that ceramics had been taught in brick making courses, plastics only in chemistry departments, and metals in metallurgy departments. Those three all came together and the birth of Materials Science was roughly in the very late ‘50s. I think the first department to call itself Materials Science was the North Western University in 1958, and now I don’t think you’ll find any metallurgy departments, they’ll all be Materials Science, or they’ll be called Materials Science and Engineering, because they serve the engineer. The results of successful Materials Science is some sort of engineering artefact, either a microchip or a motorcar or an aeroplane. At the time I was doing research, materials had become a very hot topic for a variety – a number of reasons. The improvement in electron microscopes, the demand for materials during the War, the invention of, er, new ways of thinking about metals and crystallography, the development of a complete knowledge of crystal structures, these all made it possible to look inside a piece of steel and try and discover whether you could account for the properties of that steel in terms of the crystals inside it. That’s the basic of the subject. And in the 1950s and ‘60s it was a very exciting field, and it still is. The difference now is that nanomaterials, very small materials, are the hot topic, again because microscopes and methods of examining solid objects have increased in resolving power enormously. So there’s an exciting future, just as there has been an exciting past. So I’m yesterday’s tomorrow, if you like.

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