FxF: A Matter of Definition, Engineering


Every era of the world has been defined by and named for a different material, making materials science and engineering (MSE) the most central discipline in the history of the world. This is a statement oft repeated in MSE information sessions and introductory classes, and one which hooked me in high school and dragged me headfirst into a sometimes confusing but always fascinating world of physics, chemistry, and innovation.

Wow. Bold, I remember thinking. But also true.

It’s easy to accept the historians’ delineations and talk about the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc. without stopping to think about what actually defines those periods. Sure, we don’t know much about those vast swaths of time beyond a few scattered archaeological remains, but can we really distill thousands of years of humanity into a single medium of weaponry, kitchenware, and farming tools? The world seems to think so, along with materials scientists everywhere, but part of the reason I have remembered this claim so long is because of the follow-up question: what will we create that will shape the next “Age”?

At this point, I began to wonder. Why do we need to have ages at all? And what makes us the best judge of them when we have a God who initially made all the matter we manipulate?

First, humans have an undeniable urge to define things. As any student in my classes on quantum mechanics could tell you, we don’t do so well with abstract concepts, and for some, the reality of God is one of the biggest abstractions there is.

Ask the Israelites, who time and again turned to false gods and physical idols in the attempt to explain their miraculous circumstances and assign some agency to a conceivable being. There was a reason God commanded his people to stay away from idols, covetousness, and all the corresponding sins detailed in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20.1

However, our compulsion to categorize is not a result of sin. In fact, it is a remnant of a time before humanity’s disobedience and subsequent Fall, when God assigned stewardship of the earth to mankind, and commanded him to name the creatures contained therein. We cannot escape our God-given purpose, even if we have managed to distort it. We have glanced upon God’s creation and named eras after the metals and materials of the earth, all the while willfully ignoring his role in their formation and focusing instead on how humans have used them.

The conversion of materials like iron, rocks, and steel into implements of various function reflects humanity’s second tendency, which is the desire to do. We go to war with our tools. We hunt with them. We work with them. These actions, especially the last, reveal the corrupting effects of sin on our needs.

No longer are we perfect stewards of the earth; instead we kill for food, fight for hate, and all the while labor at the soil of the earth to fulfill God’s curse on the earth as he banished Adam and Eve into a broken world in Genesis 3.2

Doing is not always a bad thing. We do have a purpose in this world, one which is summarized succinctly in a centuries-old tenet of the Christian faith:

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”3

Are we glorifying God in the actions for which we use his creation? Certainly not in war, and not in work either, since its current state is a perversion of what was meant to be.

But what about in the pursuit of science, or history? Can we study the materials of the present and the past in a God-centric manner? I think so, as long as we let the Creator, and not the creation, become our focus.

Instead of considering the Iron Age as simply the time when people developed better and sharper weapons, we should consider why it was the perfect time for Israel to establish a kingdom. Or why it was the right period for Jesus to live as a human and make use of iron tools as a carpenter and be pierced by iron nails on the cross.

So too for myself. Too often I can find myself consumed by the fascinating behavior of materials, forgetting that God created the elements we manipulate and the laws of physics they obey. But when I look for God in MSE, I am always sure to find him.

He is in the conservation of energy, and the beautiful exactness of quantum mechanics, and the fact that new structures can be created without violating the laws of nature. He is in why we continue to create and use and do.

So what materials will we create that will shape the future? I don’t know, except that they will only be ones that God has already designed. But the one answer I do have is that materials don’t define the stages of the world. That job is God’s, and it is his people’s job to make that known.

1 Exodus 20:1-17

2 Genesis 3:17-19

3 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1

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