I had a conversation today that made me think about the following. These days we're told countless times that it's essential for a scientist to have an "elevator message". That is, we need to be able to describe what we're doing in a pitch accessible to a lay person ideally in something like a single sentence. Some people have a comparatively easy time of this. They can say "I'm trying to cure cancer", or "I'm trying to solve the energy crisis", and have that be a reasonable description of their overarching research goals. Condensed matter physicists in general often have trouble with this, and tend to fall back on things like "My work will eventually enable faster computers" or "...better sensors". I'm all in favor of brief, accessible descriptions of what scientists do, but there are times when I think the elevator message idea is misguided. Not every good research program can be summed up in one sentence.
In the case of my group, we are trying to understand the (electronic, magnetic, and optical) properties of matter on the smallest scales, with an eye toward eventually engineering these properties to do useful things. It's basic research. Sometimes we can test existing theoretical ideas or address long-standing questions; sometimes, because we're working in previously unexplored regimes, we find surprises, and that can be really fun. I know that this italicized section is more sophisticated and therefore less pithy than "it'll give us faster computers". Still, I feel like this longer description does a much better job of capturing what we're actually doing. Our work is much more like puzzle-solving and exploring than it is a focused one-goal pursuit. I don't think that this means I lack vision, but I'm sure others would disagree.
On a separate note: Thanks, Arjendu, for pointing me to this, Microsoft Research's hosting of a series of Feynman lectures at Cornell in 1964. Very cool, even if I had to install MS's plug-in for the video.