Soft Matter – an Emergent Interdisciplinary Science of Emergent Entities

Authored by: Tom McLeish

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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From the decade of the 1990s, terms such as ‘soft matter’ and ‘soft matter physics’ began to appear with increasing regularity in conference announcements, review articles and books. Previously a much more fragmented disciplinary landscape had been evidenced by repeated reference to the individual research topics that ‘soft matter’ later subsumed: colloid physics, polymer physics and chemistry, liquid crystal science and more. 1 The language strongly indicates not simply a summation of research programmes, but the recognised emergence of a new field of science. The coherence of soft matter principally draws on both conceptual and experimental foundations, as we shall see, but the superficial consequence is that materials falling under the labels of colloids (Lekkerkerker and Tuinier 2011), polymers (Doi and Edwards 1986), liquid crystals (de Gennes and Prost 1995), self-assembly (Witten 2004), membranes (Safran 2003), foams (Weare and Hutzler 1999), granular materials (Duran 2000), biological materials (Nelson 2004), glasses (Jones 2002) and gels (Rubinstein and Colby 2003) now find a common scientific home within soft matter (Jones 2002). A more recent extension into biological science benefits from the ubiquity of soft matter material structures at the nanoscale level within biological cells (McLeish 2011). Conversations between these subfields, as well as within them are, as a consequence, now commonplace.

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