If you like the down-to-the-last-atom designer stuff described within, you'll love the 21st century. The future will be built of such stuff." So writes Richard Smalley, Nobel laureate for the discovery of carbon-60, of Philip Ball's new book. If you share a preference for short Anglo-Saxon words over Latin derivatives, then "stuff" is a fair synonym for materials. Within the scientific and engineering community, the term materials embraces far more than just cloth or textiles; it literally means whatever you use for making things out of. From the beginnings of human history (the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age...), the ability to understand and use materials has determined the limits of technology. Nineteenth-century industry was made possible by developments in steel-making, the 20th century's by the ability to make silicon crystals with very high levels of purity and perfection.
For this book, Ball has explicitly focused on advanced materials, by which he means high added-value materials, created by relatively sophisticated processes, usually for specialised applications. This is not to belittle the fascination of more established materials such as steels, but it does give him the freedom to concentrate on materials where rapid and fascinating advances are being made, and which can be expected to provide crucial underpinning for future technology. Having given himself this licence, he is then able to describe advances being made in materials for a remarkably eclectic range of application areas.
The topics are arranged in self-contained chapters so that the reader can pick items of interest in almost any order. Photonic materials are materials whose optical properties can be tailor made. They form the subject of the first chapter, partly with an eye to future all-optical computing. Every computer manufacturer would also dearly love to know what materials will eventually prove able to store information in the finest and most accessible form, and this is the subject of the next chapter. Once again a fascination with optical methods is revealed, including those involving bacteria. From materials for the information age, the next chapter moves to smart materials that can change their properties in response to stimuli. These include shape-memory alloys, which can undergo irreversible or reversible shape changes with increase or decrease in temperature.
Some of the highest-performance materials are found in nature. Wood has long been the preferred material for all sorts of structural applications. It is hard to produce synthetic polymers that are much stronger than silk, and the production of silk in a spider provides fascinating lessons on aqueous polymer processing. There is such a wealth of diversity in natural materials that this constitutes the longest chapter. It is followed by a chapter describing materials for biomedical applications, building on the enormous success of operations such as hip replacement.
Porous materials come next. Zeolites are materials with a range of pore sizes that can be used as catalysts or molecular sieves. Originally found as a natural mineral, zeolites can now be synthesised with an astonishing range of properties. The following two chapters embrace synthetic very hard and relatively soft materials. Diamond is a metastable form of solid carbon, and it can now be made artificially for a range of industrial applications, though the natural variety retain their best-friend niche. Polymers, like ceramics, are forging ahead from the cheap plastic commodity of the past to finely engineered materials with very precisely controlled molecular architectures.
All materials interface with the world through their surfaces, and the final chapter is devoted to considering how surfaces differ from the bulk. Images in this chapter range from showing how water can run uphill on a slope with graded surface energy to pictures of individual atoms on a silicon surface.
The world of new materials is advancing so rapidly that it requires someone who is very well informed to be able to write with confidence about what is presently available, let alone about what will eventually be possible. Ball is superbly qualified for this task. As an editor of the journal Nature , he has done more than anyone else to promote inclusion of papers on materials, and this reflects the new centre-stage position that the subject increasingly enjoys among the physical sciences. He is thus able to write at an accessible level with the authority of someone fully up to date with the research literature. The background knowledge required is perhaps comparable with Scientific American , demanding a lively interest in the subject but not prior specialised knowledge. There are plenty of illustrations (including 15 colour plates), each with an informative self-contained caption.
This book is for anyone with an alert interest in what you will be able to make things out of in the future. It should be essential reading for everyone involved in the management or financing of manufacturing industry. It will also be invaluable for physical science teachers who want to be equipped for the increasing materials content of school science syllabuses. I believe, too, that it will be accessible to the more able sixth-former, for whom it might help to take away the strangeness of materials science as a university degree course, and thus open his or her eyes to the challenge and importance of this field where science and engineering overlap.
Andrew Briggs is reader in materials, University of Oxford.
Made to Measure
Author - Philip Ball
ISBN - 0 691 033 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 468