Innovation often happens at an interface. In materials science and engineering (MSE), groundbreaking discoveries have occurred at the interfaces of two or more different materials. For example, the modern computer chip relies extensively on the properties exhibited where metals meet semiconductors. Similarly, innovative thinking can happen at the interface of multiple academic disciplines. To revisit our example, the modern computer chip operates at the intersection between technological devices, the personal lives of those who create and use these devices, and the communities in which they live. This textbook brings the humanities and humanistic social sciences into dialogue with MSE to explore the synergies between human life and materials innovation in societies ranging from pre-civilization to the present. It is only in dialogue between the properties of the “stuff we make” (the domain of MSE) and the sociocultural forces that shape and are impacted by this “stuff” (the terrain of the humanities), that we can fully understand our material world.
The need for close dialogue between the humanities and sciences has been echoed since the origins of the academy. As stated in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “An educational system that merges humanities and sciences, creating whole-brain engineers and scientifically inspired humanists, fosters more than just innovation. It yields more-flexible individuals who adapt to unanticipated changes as the world evolves unpredictably.”
This is particularly important today, as we increasingly see science not only as the pursuit of natural truths but also as a portfolio of solutions to national and global problems. In addressing these problems, it is important for scientists and researchers to proceed intentionally and with comprehensive knowledge of the social and cultural worlds in which these problems are manifest. Two federal funding agencies, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were established in the United States in 1950 and 1965, respectively. In the report leading to NEH’s founding, the authors wrote, “If the interdependence of science and the humanities were more generally understood, men would be more likely to become masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.” The report’s authors, hailing from leading universities as well as the US Atomic Energy Commission, IBM Corporation, and New York Life Insurance, knew that connecting the humanities and sciences would help us make informed judgments about our control of nature, ourselves, and our destiny.
The 1980 Commission on the Humanities again revisited the relationship of the humanities and sciences, noting that “social and ethical questions are intrinsic to science and technology. In these respects, science and technology have been a domain of the humanities in Western culture since its Greek origins.” The same can be said of the close relationship of science and technology to the humanities in all cultures because cultural beliefs and social needs guide how humans fabricate and adopt materials in any context. The humanities and so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are allies in world making. Advances in science and engineering are themselves social products, expressions of the cultural drives of a society. Furthermore, as the disciplines that seek to understand the values and choices of human decision-makers, the humanities can “awaken scientists and technicians to problems of which they may not have been aware.”  These problems may involve questions as to the ethical dimensions of technical innovation or possible unintended consequences, but they can also be human needs addressed through technical innovation. As noted more recently, in the 2013 Heart of the Matter report produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, all disciplines must come together in addressing the grandest challenges of our time, including the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, education, and human rights and safety.
There is a growing recognition of the importance of holistic thinking among scientific agencies as well. The National Academy of Engineering has categorically stated that today’s engineers need to be more than individuals who simply like math and science. They must be “creative problem-solvers” who help “shape our future” by improving our “health, happiness, and safety.”
And in 2012, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) added two new criteria for engineering education that emphasize the social ends of engineering work. These criteria were modified in 2017 to the following:
- (2) an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors
- (4) an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts
Effectively, these ABET criteria recognize that engineering is truly multidisciplinary. Engineering does not just engage our scientific knowledge of the physical world; it also engages social and cultural awareness of the world in which engineers (and the eventual consumers of their work) live.
Unfortunately, the need for social and scientific dialog in technological innovation is not being met by coursework at most colleges and universities. A 2014 report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences discovered that humanities and STEM majors largely dwell in different silos during their educational pathways. This is an impediment to addressing problems that require working with people from other disciplines, as well as recognizing the importance of diverse backgrounds within individual disciplines. Prior research has shown that discussing case studies of how technical products affect people in their daily lives is one demonstrated way to meet the ABET criterion of “understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global. . . societal context.” Moreover, existing studies demonstrate that teaching science through the lens of social context and issues contributes to students having more nuanced understandings of engineering solutions as well as a more interdisciplinary and problem-centered conception of scientific inquiry.
The Impact of Materials on Society
This textbook is intended to accompany a freshman-level undergraduate course created by University of Florida faculty with support from the Materials Research Society, Department of Defense, and National Science Foundation. The course examines the discovery, development, and use of materials over time in order to distill lessons from the past that may guide materials engineering innovation in the future. Developed by a team of materials engineers and humanities scholars, this textbook operates at the intersection of material culture and materials science and is intended for use by students of both engineering and the humanities. The stories in this textbook may also accompany a range of academic initiatives including high school coursework, museum exhibits, and lifelong learning programs.
If the goals of these authors are to create curricular dialogue between the humanistic social sciences and engineering, why choose the terrain of MSE to begin? Put simply, everything in our lives is made from a material. MSE is possibly the most ubiquitous form of engineering that we encounter on a daily basis. We have even named societal epochs after materials (e.g., the Stone Age, the Iron Age, etc.) Moreover, the basic properties of materials (e.g., ductility, melting point, density) are intuitive, requiring little advanced mathematics, chemistry, or physics knowledge. The artifacts that we make with materials—from skyscrapers to quarters to microchips—are shaped into cultural currency in our world. Writing about the unfortunate mistrust between the sciences and humanities in 1958, British botanist Sir Eric Ashby noted that technology could be “the cement between science and humanism” because technology is concerned not with science per say, but rather with the “application of science to the needs of society.”
MSE as a field has grown out of our desire to make things that better our lives; there has always been an interest in the stuff we use to make these things. From manipulating materials existing in nature like wood, bone, stone, and clay, to creating new materials through the smelting of metals or firing of clays to create ceramics, civilization evolved alongside our ability to manipulate materials. For millennia, people have learned through trial and error how to manipulate existing materials to create new materials with new properties. They have handed this knowledge down through generations. In some cases new materials were discovered by alchemists seeking to create gold. As the science of chemistry evolved, we began to create completely synthetic materials such as polymers, and eventually we developed the tools to examine the microstructure. This led to the ability to correlate how processing the material affected its structure and how that in turn affected the properties of that material. Understanding how this relationship influenced the performance of a material led to the birth of the discipline of MSE in the middle of the twentieth century. By combining earlier fields like ceramics and metallurgy with MSE, our understanding of materials continues to evolve rapidly with novel innovation occurring at the interface of the study of different materials.
But it would be foolish to end a discussion of a material’s properties at what is physically discernable. After all, materials innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Materials are themselves caught up in social regimes of power and value. A diamond may be “a girl’s best friend,” as Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe once crooned, but diamonds have also been mined by children or sold to finance wars or used to create highly conductive thin films with potential applications in microelectronics. A material also has a lifespan, which begins at its mining or synthesis and fabrication and continues through its recycling or disposal; at each stage it is involved with a network of people, technologies, and other materials. A material can have social properties, such as health, environmental impact, economic value, and social status. And, as demonstrated here in the chapter on plastics, a material can mean different things to different people. This study of how people imagine, fabricate, understand, and use the things they need in community with others is the basic terrain of the humanities and humanistic social sciences. This socio-cultural literacy can be as important to engineering innovations as technical literacy.
In creating this textbook, we have been inspired by other texts exploring the products of materials engineering at use in the world, such as The Substance of Civilization (1998) and Stuff Matters (2014), both written by materials engineers. In its focus on the sociocultural values that shape our use of materials, however, this textbook is more closely inspired by The Social Life of Materials (2015). Its collaborative ethos echoes an earlier anthology edited by University of Florida engineering and classics faculty entitled Engineering and Humanities (1982), which represented an effort to share the lessons of the liberal arts with engineers to encourage them to entertain ambiguity and complexity rather than straightforward solutions. We are also indebted to work in the interdisciplinary area of science and technology studies, which unites the study of scientific practices with the study of the use and social impacts of technological artifacts.
This book is unique in that it explicitly aims to generate social concepts from different humanities (and humanistic social science) disciplines that create ways to examine materials from different perspectives. This book is not “humanities for engineers” or “engineering for humanities”; rather, it is an attempt to show how humanists and engineers can improve interdisciplinary communications through innovations afforded by materials. The chapters examine the social contexts of the kinds of problems material scientists are challenged to solve, and the social-political and material consequences of their solutions, many of which are unintended. In so doing, it produces a usable history, or distills lessons from the humanities that can guide the development of future engineering solutions and anticipate their social impacts, thus allowing us to prepare for them thoughtfully and intentionally. By sharing lessons from a variety of different disciplines for the study of materials, this text gives students the tools to connect the fundamental concepts and methodologies that they are learning across the curriculum to help address future challenges.
Enduring Knowledge Statements
Taken together, these chapters provide case studies that support five big ideas necessary to understand and predict the impact of materials on society. We refer to these as “Enduring Knowledge Statements”:
- Materials shape the human experience, and vice versa. Just as the technologies created through the discovery and use of new materials have extended possibilities for human action, materials are themselves dependent upon humans to create and sustain them. (As we make things, things make us.) Increasingly, this is quite literal as materials are extending our bodies through tissue engineering, polymer scaffolding, even nanomaterials for everything from drug delivery to sensory augmentation. This relationship of mutual dependency between materials and society is further elaborated through the principle of “entanglement”, discussed in the chapter on clay.
- Materials can be manipulated to solve technical and sociocultural problems. Material scientists and engineers have played important roles in civilizations throughout human history, even if they have not always looked like today’s engineers in white lab coats or “bunny suits.” In addressing technical problems such as building sustainable shelters, creating durable tools, and controlling matter at the nanoscale, materials engineers are also developing technologies that are put to use to address basic human needs for shelter, food, healthcare, security, and communication around the world. As a result, MSE is involved directly in addressing social, cultural, economic, political, and ethical challenges as well as technical challenges.
- Materials have intrinsic physical properties, only some of which are selected as more relevant in shaping society based on cultural perspectives. The use of a material can change. It is important to dispel the notion in engineering that “if we build it, they will come.” The history of materials engineering is littered with examples of discoveries and inventions that were never adopted in society because they were not well suited to their society’s social needs and cultural values. (The chapters on aluminum and polymers in this textbook tell two such stories.) Moreover, engineers are themselves members of the societies in which they work, and unavoidably hold some of the cultural biases and social assumptions of their non-engineering peers. These assumptions can shape the ways in which engineers decide to manipulate materials in a particular time and place. Engineers need to understand how social and cultural forces shape their own work and the reception of their inventions in order to think broadly and creatively.
- The impact of materials on society varies with the cultural and historical context. Higher education tends to teach the same set of values that are shared by the scientific community; people who disagree with science, particularly on religious grounds, do not disagree about the facts, they disagree with the values that underpin certain scientific claims. In this context material impacts can be negative.
- Understanding the impact of materials on society requires a variety of approaches in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. As is already evident, the impact of materials on society can be understood only by examining the many intersections of materials and their properties, the technologies they have enabled, social needs, and cultural values. It is important not only to look at what we do with materials-based technologies, but also how our own mindsets shape how we do and do not choose to manipulate these materials in the first place. In taking this holistic approach to understanding materials in our world, we can also combine expertise from multiple disciplines to build more sustainable technologies. For example, we may be able to make more efficient solar cells using cadmium, but if we consider the negative impacts associated with cadmium’s toxicity from the beginning, we can insist upon making the cells with an alternative material and innovate in that direction. Thinking broadly ensures that we do not build something with negative social consequences.
This in-depth case study approach to examining materials in past societies also raises several other themes for study across these chapters. For example, looking historically at materials raises the point that materials have a temporality: some last longer than others. Do we want to plan for the obsolescence of materials when we first create and begin to use them? More and more, we are taking a cradle-to-cradle approach in the lifecycle of a material, meaning we are moving away from the use-and-discard approach. To take another example, history tells us that materials innovations often come from unpredictable places, and that contemporary researchers can still learn quite a bit from how earlier humans manipulated and used materials (for example, Roman concrete). The chapters on steel and plastics also note the undercredited roles of some entrepreneurs and their home experiments. Finally, humanistic inquiry can point out critical issues related to the use of materials. Our applications of materials discoveries to social needs are seldom, if ever, neutral. Materials can be used in ways that reinforce disparities based on class, gender, race, and ability, as well as power imbalances between societies. Materials can also be used in ways that impede the health and security of certain communities involved in their production and consumption. Rather than see the humanities as critics of the sciences, however, we must remember that skepticism is itself part of the scientific process.
Summary of textbook chapters
This textbook is designed to be used as part of the Impact of Materials on Society curriculum, hosted on the LibraryPress@UF and Materials Research Society websites. The curriculum is made up of weekly modules that examine different materials and their impacts on society, from human prehistory to the future. Each week discusses a different material or class of materials. It begins with an introductory lesson as to the material properties, processing and structure of a material from a MSE perspective, followed by a historical case study of that material that introduces a social principle, a video of future material innovations, and finally an activity that links the study of the past and its social principle to the material of the future.
Each of these chapters provides an overview of the social use of a particular material. Some of the chapters focus on a particular place and time in human history, such as 1960s America, the Neolithic settlement Çatalhöyük, or ancient Rome. Other chapters use cross-cultural comparison to study the impacts of materials beyond individual societies, such as the development of inter-society trade networks ushered in with bronze, or the ways in which writing materials contributed to different forms of political power within ancient, medieval, and pre-modern societies. In addition to articulating the ways in which this material was enabling to society at particular points in time, each chapter also provides a lesson on the impact social and cultural systems played in the development of materials. Taken together, these social lessons (e.g., entanglement, creative destruction, etc.) provide a toolkit for future researchers and scientists to design materials more intentionally to address human needs, anticipate and prevent associated pitfalls, and appreciate the role of collaborative inquiry in innovating future materials.
This book is in no way exhaustive of the lessons that can be taken from the history of materials, and from the many disciplines that make up the humanities and social sciences, to examine the impact of materials on society. The current chapters draw lessons from cultures around the globe, with a focus on the history of societies within present-day Europe and North America. This is a living textbook that invites diverse contributions of all human cultures. We hope that the modular template of these chapters will inspire other humanities instructors to collaborate with materials scientists and engineers to expand and add further case studies from all corners of the globe to this open textbook.
It is also important to discuss the organization of this textbook. Certainly, our readers will be familiar with the common practice of applying a chronological order to the human use of materials, (e.g., moving from the “ages” of stone, to bronze, to silicon). More recent scholarship, however, has demonstrated that this framework is an instrument of colonialism in that it seeks to privilege the use of certain materials as more advanced than others. It also implies that the use of some materials replaces others, which is incorrect. After all, in our current “age of silicon,” we still create stone tombstones. The use of some materials is more appropriate to certain contexts than others. An indigenous society today may find that stone tools remain completely appropriate for their uses; this does not mean that their society is somehow stuck in the past. Materials do not follow a historical chronology. So, while the historical case studies presented in this textbook loosely follow a chronological order, each chapter stands on its own and chapters may be read in a different order or adapted as needed to learn about the past and ongoing impacts of different materials.
Although this textbook seeks to eschew the idea of a chronological, sequential order of materials use throughout time, the case study focus of each chapter on a different material at a different point in human history does underline another important theme in this textbook: materials that we may neglect or consider ordinary today have actually had major multifaceted impacts that continue to be felt in contemporary societies. For example, while most of our readers will be familiar with the better-known “revolutions” such as the “Neolithic Revolution” that ushered in the transition of hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, the “Industrial Revolution” and role of iron and steel, and the “Information Revolution” and role of silicon, there are lesser-known but equally significant revolutions that we must consider alongside these. Other chapters examine the “Soils Revolution,” the “Concrete Revolution,” and the “Polymers Revolution.”
“Clay: The Entanglement of Earth in the Age of Clay” by Susan Gillespie introduces us to the widespread social significance of clay, effectively the “steel of early man.” In an archaeological investigation of Çatalhöyük, an important Neolithic settlement (7400 BCE–5200 BCE) in then Mesopotamia and present-day Turkey, Gillespie reveals the many ways in which humans at this time depended on clay for shelter, food, community, and family identity. By investigating these dependencies, we see that clay is also dependent upon humans to manipulate, strengthen, and source it. Gillespie introduces the foundational notion of “entanglement” (originally coined by anthropologist Ian Hodder) as a way of understanding the interdependent relationships between humans and materials that shape how we selectively use materials. The concept of entanglement also illustrates how humans become so comfortable with a particular material that adopting alternative materials is challenging.
“Ceramics: Firing Clay and Flaking Stone” by Ken Sassaman builds on this earthy work to examine early ceramics including glass-like rocks such as obsidian and flint. These adaptable materials can be used in a wide variety of ways. By looking at human transformations of ceramics ranging from around 10,000–13,000 years ago, Sassaman examines how ancestral humans developed the evolutionary skills to manipulate materials with greater and greater precision. Focusing on the particular example of the spear-point, Sassaman introduces the anthropological concept of “operational sequence” to study how the ways in which humans interact with materials reveal new potential uses for these materials even as they cordon off other uses. In addition, by comparing the energy used to manufacture materials with the energy they can generate, this chapter suggests ways in which future ceramics can usher in a more energy-efficient world.
“Concrete: Engineering Society through Social Spaces” by Mary Ann Eaverly introduces us to the little known “Concrete Revolution” through an in-depth look at ancient Rome (800 BCE–400 CE). Complementing Gillespie’s discussion of Mesopotamian wall construction, Eaverly examines how, as the first human-made structural material, concrete was used by ancient Romans to create monumental public spaces such as the Coliseum, public baths, and a major series of aqueducts stretching across the Roman Empire. But as Eaverly describes, the ways in which Romans used this material directly reinforced and reflected their ideas about social status and imperial power. By comparing the cultural values of ancient Roman leaders to societal ideas today, Eaverly asks us to consider how our own limited cultural perspectives may shape how we think about using material advances in the future.
“Copper and Bronze: The Far-Reaching Consequences of Metallurgy” by Florin Curta takes a unique look at the material and alloy that ushered in the so-called “Bronze Age” (3000 BCE–1000 BCE). Scholarship generally ascribes the significant social transformations often associated with this time—in agriculture, militarization, and learning—to the technological innovations associated with smelting and casting. Indeed, we might refer to copper and bronze as the first materials refined by humans. However, Curta also highlights the significant roles of trade and political complexity that gave birth to metallurgy. Seen in this way, Curta demonstrates that the advance of materials is due as much to the development of expertise of early engineers and the circulation of their know-how as it is due to the availability of the materials themselves.
“Gold and Silver: Precious Metals and Coinage,” also by Florin Curta, examines the first uses of precious metals to create widespread systems of exchange within and across societies. By examining the development of currency systems in complex societies around the world, Curta explains how the unique material properties of gold and silver facilitated the development of coinage systems that citizens trusted to hold value. To explain how a society can give particular value to a material, Curta introduces the important distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value, or the value of the metal itself versus the value that we give to the metal by inserting it into a political, economic, or social system. In this way, this chapter reveals how societies can, quite literally, take something made of one metal (such as nickel) and give it the same worth as gold.
“Steel: Carnegie and Creative Destruction” by Sean Adams examines the Industrial Revolutions made possible by significant processing advances of iron and steel in the 19th-century United States. Unlike the previous chapters, which examined the large-scale context of materials innovation, this chapter focuses our gaze on the important role of particular individuals in spurring this innovation. In particular, Adams introduces us to Andrew Carnegie’s aggressive model of entrepreneurship which reorganized factories, supply chains, and market relationships to build one of the largest American companies of the time: Carnegie Steel. Adams also introduces the concept of “creative destruction” to reveal the double-edged sword of materials innovation; the creation of one material-social system can result in the destruction of another one with associated repercussions for workers and competition. This chapter asks us to consider how future materials creations can recognize the industries they may be destroying and avoid social and economic pitfalls.
“Aluminum: Alcoa and Antitrust,” also by Sean Adams, tells another 19th- and 20th-century American story, this time of aluminum. Aluminum, a metal enabled by electricity, was a modern material in search of an application. As one American company, Alcoa, slowly discovered marketable applications of aluminum, it also grew in size and scope to control a majority of the world’s aluminum supply. This represents a unique case study to understand federal policy related to antitrust issues and competition in the marketplace, and asks readers to consider whether materials monopolies are harmful to society. As future materials research and manipulation will create more materials without immediate application, this question is important to grapple with to prepare an effective business environment.
“Plastics: Fantastic Plastics in Postwar America” by Marsha Bryant examines the modern “Polymers Revolution” in postwar, mid-20th-century America. As synthetic polymers produced in modern research laboratories, plastics have made an indelible mark on popular consumer culture. Bryant outlines the story of Earl Tupper’s invention of Poly-T, an ingenious and flexible new material that was only made popular by the marketing genius of Brownie Wise. Building on other chapters that demonstrate how cultural systems shape our perceptions of the potential applications of materials, Bryant introduces the idea of materials marketing to show how materials acquire (and can be given) particular meanings that shape the ways we publicize and use them. As with the story of Andrew Carnegie, this chapter also emphasizes that a material is not simply made by its creators; its sociocultural impact is powerfully shaped by mediators and entrepreneurs, and factors such as aesthetics are often critical to its success.
“Writing Materials: The Politics and Preservation of Knowledge” by Bonnie Effros surveys a variety of writing materials, including papyrus, parchment, and paper, from ancient Egypt in 2500 BCE to Medieval Europe in 1400 CE. Together, writing materials are significant in shaping patterns of human cognition and building communities of individuals. But the material properties and shelf lives of these “information storage media” suited different social uses ranging from government records, to biblical study, to information sharing and community-building among early nation states. These materials also reveal how the ways in which societies store and exchange information can reinforce hierarchies of wealth and privilege. In applying this lesson to the digital age, Effros asks us to think critically about whether future expansive materials for mass information storage will truly democratize our societies, or exacerbate our differences.
We hope that our readers will also notice how many discussions of materials and their impact span across chapters. Those with an interest in the social impacts of building materials, for example, will find much of interest in the chapters on clay, concrete, and steel. (Indeed, even a materials application as niche as stadium roofing is discussed in both the concrete and plastics chapters.) Those with an interest in art and commemoration will find it interesting to examine the various materials that we’ve used to express ourselves and what we stand for as a society, from the use of concrete to build monumental structures to glorify the Roman Empire, to the US government’s use of the very new aluminum to top the Washington Monument and symbolize its country’s innovation.
Comparing these case studies also reveals some larger lessons about the social role of materials. For example, although clay in Çatalhöyük and plastics in modern America seem like worlds apart, both materials were used in ways that reinforced a gendered division of labor in and for the home. In addition, these chapters show the importance of considering the many mediators involved in between materials and society: those that extract, process, transport, market, and even regulate material science and industry. And readers interested in knowing more about how technological innovation happens can pay particular note to discussions of the economies of scale in the writing material, steel, and aluminum chapters. Although a more sobering note is offered by the steel chapter about the possibilities of humans being replaced by machines, the lessons of creative destruction ask us to anticipate and address this issue.
Taken together, the contributions in this volume, and those potentially added in the future, aim to show how expertise from multiple disciplines is necessary to create a robust and effective engineering workforce. We hope these case studies will not only teach our readers facts about the past and present, but also generate questions that we must ask of our societies and engineering and technology industries looking into the future. We must discuss the kind of world that we want to live in, and imagine the ways in which new materials will enable us to build the technologies that inhabit this future. To do this, we need to move away from our opinions about materials, to understanding the facts of their development and the values of the societies that embrace them. Just as materials impact societies, societies shape how materials are employed. Only by understanding all of the physical, cultural, and social elements that make up a society can we act in an informed way.
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