Peter Goodhew: Fictional Materials

Fiction, faction, function
or What’s in a name?


Juliet assured Romeo “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” [1]  Maybe;  Or as Evelyn Waugh would have said: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” [2]   The names we use for materials definitely modify our attitude to them.  More importantly, they probably modify the public’s attitude too.  Let’s stay with fiction for a moment.  Think of the internationally best known fictional material – Kryptonite [3].  Why are we familiar with it?  Because of repetition to us at a formative age.  But what a crazy name – it is supposed to be a metallic element, but its name is based on krypton (an inert gas, not a solid) with an ending appropriate to a compound, not an element.  What was wrong with saturnium, or argabuthonium? [4]  Since 1949, generations of young people have been confused about inert gases and the endings for metallic elements!

Other fictional inventions have had happier results.  In Peter Pan [5], pixie dust allows you to fly if you are thinking happy thoughts; IBM updated the concept when describing its antiferromagnetically-coupled media technology, which can increase the data capacity of hard drives by using "magnetic pixie dust".

Dust itself is a material in Philip Pullman’s trilogy [6] – or is it? Many believe that, rather than a physical material, dust is an allusion to God.  This is more interesting than the idea of an all-pervasive fine-grained material which settles on any flat surface overnight, but it does not help our confused youth get to grips with the material universe.

From fictional to factional materials.  How else would you describe the sub-set of metallurgists who support aluminium against steel, or the coterie of semiconductor mystics who espouse gallium arsenide in the face of silicon?  And, more seriously still, the nuclear faction in the energy industry, who have a whole set of materials and problems to themselves. The issue here for materials researchers is not the political decision making, nor even the materials selection and disposal problems, but the potential disappearance of this faction because of non-replacement by young incomers. This threatens to leave society with no expertise to draw upon when making future decisions in a vital area, and risks new designs requiring that elusive fictional element unobtainium [7].

And so to a term defined by the optimists discussed by Alex King in a recent Posterminary (Nov 2005) – functional materials.  This is so good a misnomer that it should have been coined by a political spin doctor.  It was presumably devised as a put-down for materials capable of providing good, solid, mechanical functions such as load-bearing or energy-absorption or flexibility sustained over millions of cycles.  Or long-established humdrum functions like conduction of electricity or heat.  Or decorative functions such as sheen or grain.  It is not clear what a “functional material” can actually do.  In what way is the function of passing electrons and holes in opposite directions, or emitting light, or exhibiting magnetism qualitatively different from  bearing a load with a known deflection?  There is no difference except in the hyperbolic minds of those powerful people who gave the names.

The functional name which transcends all others is “smart material”.  In my pantheon a smart person is one who knows the same things that I know, but goes on to draw far more useful or far-reaching conclusions from this knowledge.  To me, a smart person is therefore delightfully unpredictable – if I could predict their conclusions I would not consider them smart.  On the other hand, a smart material is one which we design, and expect, to behave in a totally predictable way, always responding to a stimulus in the same boring fashion.  This is the antithesis of smart behaviour – it is in fact dumb – but would we have been funded for work on dumb materials?

In response to this excess of hype, which is threatening to swamp the unglamorously-named but rather important structural materials – concrete, alloys, wood, nylon – I suggest that we found a lobby group to counter discrimination against strong, cheap, useful (and therefore unsexy) materials.  I have not found a good name yet: Society for the Love of Unfashionable Materials and their Properties sounded promising until I looked at the acronym.  But I have started on the promotional campaign;  It is focussing initially on mud-slinging and will describe functional materials as puny, brittle, expensive and inaccurately named.  Rather unattractive, don’t you think?  Would you fund work on ruinously expensive, weak materials with very limited behaviours made from poisonous elements?  That should put paid to the gallium arsenide faction, for a start.

Fictional but functional footnotes

  1. Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, scene 2
  2. Evelyn Waugh: Scoop
  3. Superman
  4. Argabuthon, a minor planet in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. J M Barrie: Peter Pan
  6. Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials
  7., fictional materials


Peter Goodhew, December 2005

Page last updated: 04/16/2019