What is soft matter?

Look inside a glass of milk. Still, smooth, and white. Now put a drop of that milk under a microscope. See? It’s not so smooth anymore. Fat globules and proteins dance around in random paths surrounded by water. Their dance—a type of movement called Brownian motion—is caused by collisions with water molecules that move around due to the thermal energy. This mixture of dancing particles in water is called a colloid.

Colloids are one of the classic topics in soft matter, a field of physics that covers a broad range of systems including polymers, emulsions, droplets, biomaterials, liquid crystals, gels, foams, and granular materials. And while I can keep adding items to this list, I can’t give you a precise definition for soft matter. I’ve never seen a completely satisfying definition, and I’m not going to even attempt to provide that here. But I can give you a taste of some of the definitions, and I hope you’ll come away with the feeling that you sort of know what soft matter is.

The phrase “soft matter” brings to mind pillows and marshmallows. These things fall under physicist Tom Lubensky’s definition (given in a 1997 paper) of soft materials as “materials that will not hurt your hand if you hit them.” And while many materials in soft matter are too squishy to hurt you, some of them might—cross-linked polymers can be pretty hard. And what about colloids? Slapping milk won’t hurt, but it also seems strange to call milk soft.

To understand what the “soft” refers to in “soft matter”, we first have to know where the name came from. The French term “matière molle” was coined in Orsay around 1970 by physicist Madeleine Veyssié, who worked in the research group of one of the founding fathers of soft matter, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. The phrase apparently started as a private joke within the de Gennes group (don’t ask me what it meant), and the English translation of “soft matter” was popularized by de Gennes in a lecture he gave after winning the Nobel prize in 1991. De Gennes wrote that soft matter systems have “large response functions”, meaning that they undergo a large (don’t ask me how large) change in response to some outside force. So it seems we’re meant to take “soft” to mean something closer to “sensitive”, not necessarily soft in a tactile sense.

Now we can think about why colloids are soft from a different perspective. Remember that milk droplet under the microscope? The fats and proteins move around in the droplet due to thermal energy in the water; they are “sensitive” to the forces caused by thermal energy.

But even this “large response functions” idea doesn’t describe everything in soft matter. Some topics often considered a part of the field are concerned with general mathematical concepts instead of particular materials or systems. Take, for example, particle packing—the way particles arrange themselves to fit into confined spaces. Studying how particles can be arranged to pack on a curved surface is a mathematical problem and isn’t directly related to large response functions. However, since classic soft matter systems such as colloids are made up of particles you might want to pack, it makes sense to include packing as part of the field.

For every definition you give for soft matter, you can find a system that doesn’t quite fit. In an APS news article from 2015, Jesse Silverberg described soft matter as “…an amalgamation of methods and concepts” from “physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, materials, and mathematics departments. The problems that soft matter…examines are the interdisciplinary offspring that emerge from these otherwise distinct fields.” So maybe it’s not that important to have a rigid definition for soft matter; maybe its indefinability should be part of its definition. Soft matter is a field where the lines between traditional scientific disciplines are becoming ever more blurred—or, rather, soft.

Image credits: Marangoni bursting from the Lutetium Project video and Keiser et al. PRL 2017. 2017 APS/DFD Milton van Dyke Award Winners.

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