Materials Science is pretty cool actually

2023-04-24 10:26:00 +07:00 by Mark Smith

Tyler Cowan published a great interview with Jessica Wade, who is a researcher at Imperial College, London. Jessica is doing some really fascinating research using incredible tools that enable you to peer into the nano world at a molecular level. Debugging the very fabric of reality.

I did my Materials Science & Engineering Masters at Imperial. It’s a long time ago now, in the mid 90s. I wonder how things have changed. Back then the Materials department was part of the Royal School of Mines, along with other disciplines like Geology. It was a bit of an odd mixture of the really old school with the very futuristic. I did some Raman spectroscopy myself as well as electron microscopy and IR spectroscopy. Very large and expensive equipment. Many fond memories, though writing dissertations was a bit of a slog.

I chose Materials because it had an interesting balance of maths, physics and chemistry. It had a bit of a reputation for being somewhat less hardcore than say mechanical or electrical engineering, but there was something kind of cool about it. That’s what I thought anyway. Turns out that much of the interesting parts of things in the real world actually centre around materials science. It was becoming true back then, but it’s even more true as we transition to a digital world.

The difficulty for me back then was that it was very hard to see how anything I was learning would translate into the real world. After I graduated, I interviewed for some materials engineering jobs that sounded great on paper, but in practical terms, it would have been 8 hours a day in sterile labs looking through microscopes. I had absolutely nothing in common with the people I met at these companies, nice though they were.

Everything these companies did felt so far removed from how their products were used in the real world. After a tour of the labs, some of the lab coated employees there asked me if I had any questions, and I simply had nothing to ask them. Total blank. I was completely disinterested in what they were doing. It just wasn’t cool in any way. Even though it was futuristic everything somehow felt really archaic. There was no energy, enthusiasm or purpose. It felt empty.

The jobs were also always in small towns, far from the capital, and I just couldn’t envisage not being in London. These days the idea of living in a small town seems kind of nice to me, but in my 20s, it felt like some form of suicide. What would I do at the weekends for heavens sake?

After a few years working in gastropubs, an interesting cultural detour in itself, I ended up going back to university to do a Masters in Computer Science at University College London. That was awesome. I read Levi’s Hackers book, and started to get into the whole history of Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs, open source & the free software movement. Now this felt like something was going on. These were the companies building on top of the materials science tech. It felt like this was were the future was at.

Looking back it’s not so surprising to me that I went in this direction. I’d spent years following bands, going to live gigs, being immersed in mythologies, stories and fashions. In cultural scenes. That’s where all the action was. I was looking for something similar but in technology. As it happened, technology had its own version of this, but much of that had been happening in software rather than hardware. And at the turn of the millennium things were starting to get very interesting because the world wide web was starting to really catch on, and companies like MySpace and later Facebook and Twitter were taking off. Tech was beginning to enter the mainstream cultural space.

These days I wonder what the path is like for Material Science graduates. Educational wise it feels to me that there are so many more resources that connect the science to the real world. Independent media being produced by scientists and shared in places like YouTube, Wikipedia and podcasts. I love consuming all this content. I’m fascinated by it. Plus software has become pervasive basically everywhere both in industry and academia. Open source development is the norm now. Everyone codes.

Would I have stayed in science if that would have been available to me as I left college? Hard to say. Quite possibly. I ended up working in film visual effects and then tech startups.

The state of the world is very different today than it was back in the 90s. The tech landscape is massively different. We’ve been through a couple of boom bust cycles, we’ve had web2.0, crypto has started making serious progress, most people use computers, user generated content is normal, there’s an exciting Cambrian explosion in generative AI. We have moved forward technologically but also culturally, and we are starting to wrestle with the impact of all this tech. Two areas that are making the science and engineering disciples cool again are Space Travel and Quantum Computing.

Elon Musk and SpaceX is building rocket ships that can carry 50x the load of previous rockets into orbit. These are using new materials designed from first principles to push the boundaries of what is possible. They plan to turn humanity into a multi-planetary species by colonising Mars. There are also plans to send missions to the moons of Jupiter and mine asteroids. That’s pretty darn cool.

The latest All-in podcast has a great interview with one of the SpaceX engineers involved in the latest launch, which ended in disassembly but was nonetheless a big success. Really worth listening to:

Quantum Computing is very much at the early stages of development however real world production hardware is beginning to be commercialised. The UK government has bought some of these recently. All this tech is brand new, which means new materials need to be developed. New companies will be build. New software will be written. New applications will be found. New tools will be forged. There’s so much fertile ground in this space both technologically and culturally. Are we going to see films written about quantum computer hackers? Surely. Technology and culture is at a point where materials science and engineering disciplines are very very cool.

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