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Does anyone know how the "s" at the end of "materials" in "materials science" came about? It seems like "material science" would be equivalent, and is more natural to say aloud. For comparison with a similar phrase, we usually say "computer science" instead of "computers science". Does anyone know the etymology?

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6 Answers 6

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It's materials science because material is also an adjective. The phrase material science, as opposed to, say, spiritual science, was used before people started studying the science of materials. Consider this Ngram:

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If you search in Google Books for "material science" before 1910, you get hits like

What does material science know about things of the soul?
The world of spirit outside material science.
Material science takes up the objects of the world and interprets them.

Presumably, the science of materials was named materials science to avoid confusion with this phrase.

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I think this answer is accurate, but even if the phrase "material science" had not been used much in the past, it would still be confusing simply because "material" is, as you said, an adjective as well as a noun, making the construct ambiguous or misleading. –  LarsH Jan 4 '12 at 22:22

The singular form material means the matter from which a thing is or can be made. In the phrase materials science there are different elements involved, which can all be studied separately due to their different properties.

On the other hand, in your other example, computer science doesn't require plural as the computer is a specific type of machine despite its many versions and various models.

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Good point, +1. Also, computer science is not so much the study of different kinds of computers and their properties (unlike materials science), but of information, computation, models, and algorithms. –  LarsH Jan 4 '12 at 22:26
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This explanation is wrong. One says "plant taxonomy", not *"plants taxonomy", even though the whole point of taxonomy is to study and classify the various kinds of plants! –  Mechanical snail Jul 9 '12 at 1:54

The problem with the word material is that it is also an adjective. I suspect that material scientists didn't like being contrasted with immaterial scientists, so they added an s to material.

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One occasionally sees the term "material science." But most people say "materials science" because it is the science of materials, not just some particular material.

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"Computer science" is the study of computers, not some particular computer. But it's not *"computers science". –  Mechanical snail Jul 9 '12 at 1:55

"Materials science" seems more like the plural form of "material science". If you are studying about many materials, then you will use materials science rather than material science.

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Materials science means investigating various areas of science and engineering. Since it is not restricted to one particular matter, it's called materials. It studies many areas of science rather than just one.

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Materials science is the science of materials or matter, i.e., the stuff that things are made out of. It's not the science of various areas of science and engineering. –  Peter Shor Jan 4 '12 at 13:58

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