Materials science has been at the root of material progress, and indeed all progress, for so long that we may be tempted to think that its greatest contributions are behind us. The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age: They were all defined by dramatic improvements in how we manufactured and manipulated everyday objects, from knapped flint for sharper ax heads to alloyed aluminum for lighter airplane wings. But now, in the Silicon Age, isn’t progress just about manipulating ones and zeros?
The answer is a resounding no. Materials matter more today than ever, which is why Popular Science dedicated much of this issue to them. In labs across the globe, scientists are hard at work creating the foundations of tomorrow’s products: ultrasmooth coatings that repel everything from ice (on those lightweight airplane wings) to Staphylococcus aureus (in germ-ridden hospitals); self-regulating materials that alter their properties with temperature or pH; and piezoelectric films that capture wasted energy, even as other smart materials put that energy to more efficient use. As engineers prove out these materials in test labs and incorporate them into designs that leverage the new capabilities, everything stands to improve, from space suits ready for interplanetary exploration to nuclear reactors.
In fact, Moore’s Law, the central tenet of the Silicon Age, describes a principle not of data science but of materials science—every 18 months, we’re going to find a way to cram twice as many components onto a finite chip. So better materials are making better computers, which in turn are helping us design still even better materials. After a couple of million years of progress in materials science, we’re still only just getting started.
—The Editorssingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.