Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Classroom: Substance of Civilization

“If humans had never learned to smelt metals, we would still be living in caves.”

That’s what materials scientist Ron Lasky told the 60 students taking ENGS 3 “Materials, the Substance of Civilization.” The course, one of several Thayer School offerings aimed at non-majors, gives students a glimpse of the interplay between technology and lifestyles. From the Stone Age to the Silicon Age, the interplay is more than a historical footnote. According to Lasky, “The foundation of civilization rests on humankind’s ability to work with materials.”

MATERIAL WITNESS: Professor Ron Lasky demonstrates the modern version of a technology wrought from wood, sinew, bone, and feathers 40,000 years ago. Photograph courtesy of Judith Hertog.
MATERIAL WITNESS: Professor Ron Lasky demonstrates the modern version of a technology wrought from wood, sinew, bone, and feathers 40,000 years ago. Photograph courtesy of Judith Hertog.

“Students usually don’t realize the extent to which materials determine their everyday life,” he says. “Almost anything we touch has been affected by improvements in materials: the clothes we wear, the objects in our houses and offices, the equipment we use, the materials we build with.”

Marching chronologically through history, Lasky cites numerous examples of the societal impact of technological breakthroughs. “Tools and clothing enabled early humans to survive the ice age,” he says. “The Romans’ production of superior steel and their development and use of concrete and masonry created an empire. The gold rush accelerated the development of the western United States by generations. Sir Henry Bessemer’s process for producing steel inexpensively in the 1850s led to railroads, enabled the industrial revolution, and made architectural innovations such as skyscrapers and elevators possible. Turning sand into silicon chips gave us the electronics/information age.”

Even if none of the students enters engineering, Lasky hopes the course will stick with them. “I hope that as they view the world, they will never again take materials for granted,” he says.

—Judith Hertog

History’s Top Materials

By Professor Ron Lasky

  1. Wood — the most widely used building material from earliest times to today
  2. Fired clay — the first transformation of one material into another
  3. Precious metals — mainstays in the transfer of wealth
  4. Smelted materials — transforming several materials into a single material; heating copper-bearing minerals to produce copper was arguably the most significant technical development in all history
  5. Glass — used as early as 2500 B.C. for beads and 1000 A.D. for magnifiers, glass is ubiquitous in modern life
  6. Petroleum — beyond energy, a base for detergents, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and plastics
  7. Nuclear materials — fission of uranium and plutonium led to nuclear power and weapons
  8. Composites — with tremendous strength-to-weight ratios, fiberglass-epoxy carbon fiber-polymer, and other composites make cars, planes, and other products lighter
  9. Silicon — the foundation of computer and communications technology
  10. Biological and nanomaterials — today’s groundbreaking materials

For more photos, visit our Faculty and Instructors set on Flickr.

Categories: The Great Hall, Classroom

Tags: complex systems, curriculum, faculty, students

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