Colin Humphreys: old and new metallurgists

Colin Humphreys discusses the differences between old and new style metallurgy.

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A really basic difference between the two is that the people coming in realise, and this is really important that we now know sufficient about the physics and chemistry materials that we can design materials for specific purposes. There’s of course a lot we don’t know but we can now really design things for specific purposes, whereas in the past you couldn’t do that, in the past you took what you were being given more or less, you know, you took iron from the earth and you didn’t really design things for specific purposes, it was mainly trial and error. And so – and that’s what really has transformed material science so the material I’m working on now, something called gallium nitride you won’t find in nature at all, it’s something which is manmade and it’s something which we design for particular purposes and we think in advance what its properties should be. So thinking in this fundamental way has really transformed the subject. 

Sort of thinking back to the 1960s when you’re starting to think of this. Is it a radical idea at the time or a natural progression or - the idea of designing materials? 

Yeah, it is a fairly radical idea at the time, so much so that the person who was head of materials at Oxford before Peter Hirsch came, someone called Hume-Rothery, he wrote a book which is a discussion between younger metallurgist and older metallurgist [laughs] and because it was such an issue. And the young metallurgist is saying, you know, ‘We need to design these materials,’ and the older metallurgist is saying, ‘We’ve always done trial and error, why should we change?’ you know, and it’s this sort of discussion. And it was a very active sort of discussion which in a sense paralleled what happened in biology with DNA. Because I think when the structure of DNA was known and this replication of DNA ,people could see how genes worked and before that you know this understanding – this understanding wasn’t there and it’s a similar thing now with material science that we now understand why materials can conduct electricity well or emit light, and if we want a material which emits red light we can design one in principle, or emits blue light we can design one. And it’s a major breakthrough.

  • Interviewee Colin Humphreys
  • Duration 00:02:23
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 10/19/2012
  • Shelfmark C1379/88

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