The edges of our material world

For reasons that will hopefully become clear in the near future, I’ve recently been working on a list of chemistry-oriented papers that have appeared in Nature Materials, and attempting to categorise them into ‘type of chemistry’. You may think that this would be quite simple for a materials journal, and that you could simply lump them all under the ‘materials chemistry’ heading. Sadly (for my workload), not so, and as seems to be the case so often these days in research, most papers fit into several categories at once. Take our paper from last year, for instance, on photocontrolled living polymerisations – clearly of interest to materials chemists, but also relevant for the categories of synthesis and polymer chemistry. Or our paper on redox-controlled permeability of microcapsules – the materials chemistry is of interest here, but the paper has great relevance for biochemists looking at potential drug delivery, too.

All this has reminded me of a discussion meeting I went to last year hosted by the RSC, entitled “Defining materials chemistry”. The meeting brought together many materials chemists and the aim was to pin down exactly where the boundaries of this research area lie. But this seemingly simple remit turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. Needless to say, there was plenty of debate, and we ended up questioning whether we could even come up with a perfect definition of ‘materials science’ or what precisely a ‘material’ is in this context. The OED gives quite a good definition of materials science, but doesn’t even try to define ‘materials chemistry’.

The report from the meeting makes interesting reading, although I wouldn’t say we arrived at a definitive answer, so I was wondering if anyone out there had their own definition that might fit the bill? Just putting it into words seems to get harder the more you think about it – though perhaps it’s easier to come up with a personal definition than to reach a consensus amongst a group.

Despite the interesting debate, I can’t help thinking that for most researchers, the most important definition lies in the research they’re doing, and not the label they are given.


Vicki Cleave (Senior Editor, Nature Materials)