My local public radio station has been repeatedly promoting the TED Radio Hour, which involves (to paraphrase the promo) people having 18 minutes to give the talk of their lives. The TED folks have certainly gone very far in promotion - they do a great job in making all of their talks look like things worthy of listening. Looking on the TED site, it's interesting to see what there is that may be relevant to readers of this blog. Searching on "condensed matter" (without the quotes) returns only a single talk, by the extraordinarily creative George Whitesides. Searching on "nanoscale" returns eight talks, including one by Paul Rothemund on DNA origami and one by Angela Belcher on her work on nano-enabled batteries. A search on "solid state" returns nothing relevant at all. This has made me think about what I'd say if I had the chance to give a talk like this - one where it's supposed to be accessible to a really general audience. Two topics come to mind.
First, someone at some point should give a TED talk that really spells out how enormous the impact of solid state physics really is on our daily lives. This would require a couple of minutes talking about what we mean by "solid state physics", and what it tells us. This would also require some discussion about the divide between science and engineering, the nature of basic science, and the eventual usefulness of abstract knowledge. In the end, you can tie together the ideal gas law (the need to use statistics to understand large numbers of particles), the Pauli principle (which explains the periodic table and how electrons arrange themselves), the need for better telephone amplifiers (Bell Labs and the transistor), all eventually resulting in the cell phone in your pocket, computers, the internet, etc.
Second, I'd love to jump into some of our work that looks at how heating and dissipation happen at the molecular scale. When you push current through a wire, the wire gets hot. How does that happen? What does "hot" mean? How does energy get from the battery into the microscopic degrees of freedom in the wire? What happens if the wire is really small, like atomic-scale? What does it mean for something to be "irreversible"? This could be a lot of fun. Of course, the total number of scientists that give these talks is tiny and they are august (e.g., Rothemund and Belcher are both MacArthur Fellows; Whitesides has won just about everything except the Nobel, and that wouldn't be a surprise). Still, it never hurts to fantasize a bit.