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It has recently proved extremely difficult for the members of the Materials Benchmarking panel to agree on a definition of Materials for the Benchmarking statement due out in June of this year. The draft version of the Benchmarking statement is available on our web site.

Here we have some snippets from Professor Adrian Sutton's thought provoking article entitled 'Aims and objectives of a degree in Materials Science' in which he addresses the question: 'What is Materials Science?' and indeed 'What is a Material'.

What is Materials Science?

It is not easy to give an all-encompassing definition of materials science because the subject is so broad and inter-disciplinary. Graduates who entered materials science in the past often came from physics, chemistry, engineering, earth sciences and mathematics. With the growth of biomaterials medics, biologists, biochemists and biophysicists have joined in, and a whole issue of MRS Bulletin was recently devoted to the 'Materials science of the cell'.

Whatever definition we offer it has to reflect the richness and diversity of all this activity. But perhaps we should first define a material, so that we can then think about the science that is applied to materials.

What is a material?

... All matter is potentially 'a material'. Whether we decide to call something a material depends on whether its structural, mechanical, electrical, magnetic or optical properties enable us to understand an existing role, or to suggest a new role, in some phenomenon or process. These are often called 'engineering' properties of materials, but the function they enable may be in biology or geology as well as traditional engineering.

I believe the idea that a material must, by definition, enable some 'engineering' function is what delineates materials science more than anything else. For instance, materials scientists are less concerned with the science that physicists have done on liquid helium and chemists are still doing on gases. Nonetheless, there are vast areas of overlap between chemistry, physics and materials science.

So what is materials science?

What constitutes the science of materials? Perhaps the simplest way to answer this question is to look at what materials scientists do. First, they determine the structure of materials. Second, they measure properties of materials. Third, they devise ways of processing materials, i.e. creating materials, transforming existing materials, and making useful things out of them. Fourth, they think about how a material is suited to the purpose it serves already, and how it may be enhanced to give better performance for particular applications.

Each of these four activities is intellectually challenging and there are many materials scientists who are fully stretched not being engaged in more than one or two of them. But what makes materials science especially interesting and rewarding is the fact that these four activities are very dependent on each other. Indeed, this is what elevates the status of materials science to a discipline in its own right, apart from but drawing on chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, earth sciences and mathematics.

Professor Adrian Sutton
University of Oxford