The Greatest Materials of All Time

Some materials have triggered technological revolutions, which in turn have shaped cultures, defined epochs, and underpin the world’s economy and politics. “Stone Age”, “Bronze Age”, “Iron Age”; “Rust Belt”, “Silicon Valley” – we’ve all heard these names and instantly associate them with significant times (and places) of human civilization. What makes some materials define entire epochs? How did they make life different and why did they persist? What replaced them and why? What materials will enable the next big thing

Spear, Textile, Canoe, Clay pot, Plow, Cuneiform tablet, Aqueduct, Compass, Paper, Alphabet, Printing Press, Steam Engine, Internal Combustion Engine, Pneumatic Tire, Pencil, Telegraph, Electric Lights, Radio, Railways, Airplanes, Diode, Transistor, Fiber-optics, Bread, Alcohol, Coffee, Corn Syrup, Hypodermic needle and syringe, Rockets, iPhone – we instantly recognize these tools and devices (and foods!) as some of the most important inventions in history of humankind. Which materials and processes made them possible? What new businesses did they enable? What new problems did they create for humans?

Landfills, Microplastics, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Traffic jams, Lead-tainted water – we can easily identify these problems created by the great abundance of engineered and refined materials and devices made from them. How can we predict – and better engineer the life-cycle of materials? Will the current trends in resource extraction and environmental pollution continue? 

Mendeleev proposed the Periodic Table of the Elements in 1869. Just 150 years later – the blink of an eye in the face of human history – the mass of human-made materials has exceeded all biomass on Earth. What triggered this unprecedented, explosive growth in artificial and refined materials? What are we to make of this moment? How will the history (and science, and engineering, and business) of materials evolve?

This class looks at materials as function shifters – the “magical” constructs that allow humans to circumvent difficult trade-offs and, as a result, improve their chances of survival, unlock unexpected sources of prosperity, prolong life,.. – in short, obtain a kind of a “free lunch”. We will learn to identify and articulate specific dilemmas leading up to the big material breakthroughs, and map the “ecosystems” of resources and processes necessary for the growth and dominance of a material. We will learn to systematically describe the progression of how the same material can be used in different ways over its reign, and therefore predict patterns of materials’ evolution, how it enables ground-breaking inventions and the technological revolutions they catalyze.