Sunday, June 26, 2005

People who annoy me.

You know what really ticks me off? People with no technical background who have nonetheless become nanoscience and nanotechnology "talking heads". A lot of this is our fault - those of us who actually do research at these length scales. Why? Because we've done a lousy job of making sure that journalists can tell the difference between reality and hype. People on my "irresponsible talking head" list:

1) The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. These folks act like a group who have put careful thought into the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. In fact, these folks don't have a physical science degree between them. I don't care how sincerely motivated you are, or how bright: if your idea of nanotechnology comes from reading nontechnical articles, you don't really know what's going on, and if you don't have the technical background to understand real technical articles, I am highly skeptical of your opinions.

2) Josh Wolfe. When he sticks to what he knows - giving investment advice about high technology companies - Josh Wolfe is as solid as they come. Very sharp. However, lately I've seen him making the rounds on CNBC and MSNBC talking as if he really is technically knowledgable about nanoscale science. He's not.

3) Michael Crichton. Apart from the massive plot holes in Prey, what really annoys me about Crichton is that he writes "nonfiction" articles about his novels' topics that get widely circulated (like in syndicated newspaper inserts). He's such an egomaniac that he thinks doing research for one of his novels makes him as qualified as a real expert to expound on science. This is true of his nano novel Prey, and true of his environmentalism novel State of Fear. Dude: you're an author, not a polyglot genius of science. Get over yourself.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

"More" really is different.

Condensed matter physics gets a bum rap sometimes. Murray Gell-Mann referred to it as "squalid state" physics. Wolfgang Pauli called it "Physik der Dreckeffeckte", or "the physics of dirt effects". (That's particularly ironic since it's the Pauli principle that makes condensed matter at all tractable.)

In addition to being at the heart of essentially all modern electronics technology, condensed matter is actually much more intellectually profound than "junk" effects. As Phil Anderson pointed out in his now famous essay, "More is different". That is, large systems of smaller entities interacting through relatively simple rules can exhibit very surprising emergent, collective properties. For example, a single iron atom is pretty simple, but put a bunch together, and you end up with a rigid solid (!) that is also a metal (!) and, at ambient conditions, a ferromagnet (!). Try predicting all that a priori from the Standard Model of particle physics....

One of my former professors, Bob Laughlin, has written a good book on this subject. As a physicist it's tough for me to judge just how well it'll read to a lay audience, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's vintage Laughlin (who I once saw ask a seminar speaker, "It's late. We're all tired. Why should we care about any of this?!"), even if some of the Stanford anecdotes have some minor inaccuracies. Here's a
review from the New York Times. I don't agree with everything he says (pretty much he thinks "nano" work is, in general, buzzword-laden crap rather than addressing real scientific questions. Oh wait - maybe I do agree with him.), but it's a fun read.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A condensed matter physicist blog: why not?

I was googling around for something the other day, and came upon, a website that purports to be the home of "scholarly discussions of physics" on the web. Upon going there, I discovered that the definition of physics used there apparently referred only to high energy physics (e.g. string theory, loop quantum gravity, accelerator-based experiments) and astrophysics/cosmology.

I assumed that this was due to intellectual snobbery on the part of that community, and set off to find all the condensed matter / AMO physics blogs out there, only to discover that, as far as I could tell, there aren't any.

So, here we are. I'll try to start one, and we'll see where this goes. I'll try to clearly delineate between science-related posts and other stuff (my comments on the weirdness of junior faculty life, or public science policy, or humor). If there are a bunch of you out there blogging the interesting things in condensed matter, nanoscale science, or AMO physics, please post and let me know, so I can link to your stuff....

Now back to the omnipresent task of proposal-writing....