When a material is chosen or developed to fulfill a specific function, it transforms from an object into a tool. Concrete, for instance, is designed to support structures, whereas rubber is designed to stretch and bend. Wood is softer than steel but stiffer than nylon. Over time, scientists have amassed, through discovery and invention, naturally occurring and synthetic materials for countless applications. The ones that are chosen depend on the properties needed for the job.
Materials scientists have been so successful in developing and discovering materials that researchers in the field might pause and ask ourselves what our next step is. Should we keep looking for or developing that next material, with exactly the right stiffness for some particular application? Or could we be more clever?
What if we didn’t have to pick and choose from our arsenal of materials? What if a material existed that was rigid in certain situations and flexible in others, one that changed exactly when required in order to perform specific functions? Such a material may seem like science fiction, until we realize that many biological systems are, amazingly, able to perform a multitude of tasks by dynamically adjusting their mechanical properties without changing their composition.
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