A professor at CalTech in Pasadena, Calif., 37-year-old Kaushik Bhattacharya is one of the most promising young theoreticians in the field of smart materials. These substances hold significant promise for everything from creating smaller and more efficient optical switches to building highways that can report when their surface needs repair.

By going all the way down to atomic levels, scientists are learning to make hybrid “active” substances with a host of unique abilities