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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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7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

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

The answer from Peter Shor is very interesting, and seems to be the most feasible in the thread. I too would suspect an historic root, but a different one stemming from the field's development within academia. Before we get to that, let's run through what is essentially a thread summary and some possible origins suggested for this seemingly unnecessary 's.'

Possible Origins

  1. It's linguistically necessary to stress that multiple materials are studied.

As pointed out by Mechanical Snail with 'plant taxonomy,' this explanation is undermined by comparison to linguistically analogous field names for which no pluralization is required. Even if Mechanical Snail's second example of 'computer science' does not hold up, one can find many others that do (e.g. chemical engineering, plant science, particle physics). An example that I like to bring up in relation to this possible root is the common designation 'materials design.' Would you say 'machines design,' 'interiors design,' or any other such variant? No, because the 's' is superfluous unless there's another reason to include it, which leads to...

  1. Distinguishing between the meanings of 'material,' i.e.; material as the opposite of spiritual, and material as a type of matter.

Here's where Peter Shor's take comes into play, and although he's got some interesting evidence, I'm not sold! His argument is that the term material could also be a dialectic phrase used in contrast with 'spiritual' sciences, and relies in my opinion too flimsily on a single quote (please correct me if there's more) and the patently false statement that people hadn't been formally studying the science of materials before the 1960's. Sorry if I've misunderstood exactly when you would suggest people started studying the science of materials, it's unclear what you think there. Although Peter Shor's take is still feasible as a contributing factor, I think there's too little evidence for it when confronted by the next possible origin.

  1. The advancement of the field from metallurgical research to broader 'materials' research.

Before the 1960's, many university divisions that were conducting what was essentially material(s) research were simply named 'metallurgy' departments, reflecting the primary focus of the field at the time. As the space race brought about scientific developments such as composites and 'space age' polymers, the necessity to change the names of the university departments responsible for the developments became clear. Peter Shor's graph shows the spike in the usage of 'materials science' that would be expected if this origin is accepted, as this major boom in material(s) science research began in approximately 1955, when Northwestern University established the first 'materials' science (and engineering) department. (http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2005/10/materials.html)

So! Is the argument dead? Not in the least. It would be very interesting to see further digging around into Peter Shor's proposed origin, and I could be more thorough in my background research as well. What I think can be taken away from this thread is that the 's' in materials science is not linguistically required, but likely has an historic origin. I hope this post was helpful.

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"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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