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?
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:
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.
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.
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.'
- 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...
- 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.
- 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.
Let's start off with an example. EXAMPLE: "Mr. Perry Mason, I have some information that may be MATERIAL (no S) to your court case." In this sense the word MATERIAL could mean Important, Pertinent, etc. This has an entirely different meaning as to how it is used in Materials (Note the "S") Science. So yes, the Part of Speech of the English language can make a difference in the spelling & definition of a certain word in some cases.
The example containing the word SPIRITUAL was a good one. I believe in the spiritual myself as a Christian while many people don't. For them they have to have something that is tangible. Materials fall into this at the macro level even though these same materials are intangible at the nano level. Spiritual things and material things are kinda opposites of each other. So a Material(s) Scientist would normally NOT be involved with the spiritual.
I worked for this guy, now deceased, while I was in college. Microbiology was a required subject which my Boss hated. He was definitely old, old school. He thought "if you can't see it (germs, viruses, etc), it don't exist." I wonder how he would feel now that the Coronavirus pandemic is going on? There are many things in this world we know exists but we can't see. Take radioactivity and gravity for instance.
BOTTOM LINE: I belong in the Materials (with the "S") Science camp. I think it makes an important distinction in the meaning of MATERIAL as in the Perry Mason example plus not being involved with the spiritual AND the meaning of MATERIALS (with the "S") Science.