Many of the most pressing scientific problems humans currently face are due to the limits of the materials that are available and how they are used. Thus, breakthroughs in materials science are likely to affect the future of technology significantly.
Materials scientists emphasize understanding how the history of a material (its processing) influences its structure, and thus the material's properties and performance. The understanding of processing-structure-properties relationships is called the § materials paradigm. This paradigm is used to advance understanding in a variety of research areas, including nanotechnology, biomaterials, and metallurgy. Materials science is also an important part of forensic engineering and failure analysis - investigating materials, products, structures or components which fail or do not function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property. Such investigations are key to understanding, for example, the causes of various aviation accidents and incidents.
The material of choice of a given era is often a defining point. Phrases such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Steel Age are historic, if arbitrary examples. Originally deriving from the manufacture of ceramics and its putative derivative metallurgy, materials science is one of the oldest forms of engineering and applied science. Modern materials science evolved directly from metallurgy, which itself evolved from mining and (likely) ceramics and earlier from the use of fire. A major breakthrough in the understanding of materials occurred in the late 19th century, when the American scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs demonstrated that the thermodynamic properties related to atomic structure in various phases are related to the physical properties of a material. Important elements of modern materials science are a product of the space race: the understanding and engineering of the metallic alloys, and silica and carbon materials, used in building space vehicles enabling the exploration of space. Materials science has driven, and been driven by, the development of revolutionary technologies such as rubbers, plastics, semiconductors, and biomaterials.
Before the 1960s (and in some cases decades after), many materials science departments were named metallurgy departments, reflecting the 19th and early 20th century emphasis on metals. The growth of materials science in the United States was catalyzed in part by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded a series of university-hosted laboratories in the early 1960s "to expand the national program of basic research and training in the materials sciences." The field has since broadened to include every class of materials, including ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, magnetic materials, medical implant materials, biological materials, and nanomaterials, with modern materials classed within 3 distinct groups: Ceramic, Metal or Polymer. The prominent change in materials science during the last two decades is active usage of computer simulation methods to find new compounds, predict various properties, and as a result design new materials at a much greater rate than previous years.