Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why there has been no Carl Sagan or Brian Greene of condensed matter physics

It's impossible to be a condensed matter physicist that cares about outreach and scientific literacy, and not think about why condensed matter physics has taken such a back seat, comparatively, in the popularization of science.  It is easy to argue that condensed matter physics has had more direct impact on the daily lives of people living in modern, technological societies than any other branch of physics (we could get into an argument about the relative impacts of the transistor and the laser, but I think the CM folks would win).  So, how come there are specials and miniseries on PBS and Discovery Channel about string theory, the LHC, cosmology, and astrophysics with considerable regularity, people like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Neil DeGrasse Tyson show up on The Daily Show, and the closest condensed matter gets to the public consciousness is a BBC special from several years ago about the Schon scandal?  Is it just that there is no charismatic, telegenic champion of the cause?  I think it's more than that.

First, there is the issue of profundity.  High energy physics makes an obvious play toward people's desire for answers to Big Questions.  What is mass?  What is everything made out of?  How many dimensions are there?  How did the Universe begin, and how will it end?  Likewise, astrophysics talks about the history of the entire Universe, the birth and death of stars, the origin of galaxies, and literally heaven-shaking events like gamma ray bursts.  Condensed matter physics has a much tougher sell.  In some ways, CM is the physics of the everyday - it's the reason water is wet, metals are shiny, diamond is transparent and sparkly, and the stuff in sand can be used to make quasimagical boxes that let me write text read all over the world.  Moreover, CM does look at profound issues (How does quantum mechanics cross over into apparently classical behavior?  How do large numbers of particles interacting via simple rules give rise to incredibly rich and sometimes amazingly precise emergent properties?), just ones that are not easy to state in a five word phrase.

Second, there is the problem of accessibility.  CM physics is in some sense an amalgam of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics.  People do not have everyday experience with either (at least, the vast majority don't realize that they do).  It's very challenging to explain some of the very nonintuitive concepts that crop up in condensed matter to lay-people without either gross oversimplification or distortion.  There can be a lot of overhead that must be covered before it's clear why some CM questions really are interesting.  An awful lot of CM issues literally cannot be seen by the naked eye, including atoms.  Of course, the same can be said for quarks or colliding neutron stars - this is not an insurmountable problem.

Third, there is perceived relevance.  This is complementary to profundity.  People are naturally interested in Big Questions (the origins of the stars) even if the answers don't affect their daily lives.  People are also naturally interested in Relevant Questions - things that affect them directly.  For example, while I'm not that into meteorology, I do care quite a bit about whether Tropical Storm Bonnie is going to visit Houston next week.  Somehow, people just don't perceive CM physics as important to their daily existence - it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible.  

These issues greatly constrain any attempt to popularize CM physics....


Anonymous said...

I don't buy it - at least not all of it. Or rather: I think maybe you're aiming too high for what a popularization of condensed matter might do, and in failing to see how to reach such heights, missing a goal that's still worthy.

I don't read much popular science these days, but when I was in high school I did, and it definitely had an influence on what I ended up studying (lots of math and particle physics as an undergrad, and now I do particle theory). I read Hawking and Brian Greene, but I also read a lot of lesser-known books (the titles and authors of which I've long since forgotten) on topics like the proof of Fermat's last theorem, fractals, chaos, Hilbert's problems... These books went into varying amounts of depth, but for the most part these are topics of no obvious relevance to the real world, no clear relation to the Big Questions, and with pretty steep technical barriers to really understanding them. And yet, the popular books worked; they gave enough of an impressionistic sense of what mathematicians found exciting, what the connections are between different areas, and how all of this might matter that I was hooked. Teenage-me was inspired to get a bunch of actual math books and learn things. And I think the same can be done for condensed matter physics. They can be sold in the same way the fractal books sell their subject -- "look around you! this stuff is everywhere!" -- and I think that the technical details can be sold as interesting, too. Starting with the same simple physics, a lattice of atoms with electrons around them, look what a bewildering array of things can happen: ferromagnets! antiferromagnets! superconductors! The quantum Hall effect!

I wouldn't bet on it being a runaway bestseller, but if there were enough books around like this, people like my teenage self might be inspired by it, rather than being inspired by all the flashier fields with less real-world relevance. I regret not having been aware enough of what was exciting about condensed matter physics to be able to make an informed choice, even if I don't regret the choice I made.

-- onymous

thm said...

I think it goes in part back to the fundamental prejudices embedded in our education system and that condensed matter is too close to engineering and therefore too crass for the high-minded. And this prejudice carries over into popular accounts of the pursuit of knowledge.

By the early 19th century, colleges and universities were dominated by the upper class, and the ethos and values of the upper class permeated the entire experience. The late 19th century brought a boom in the establishment of colleges and universities, who more or less duplicated the disciplines, course offerings, and broad outlook of the established universities. So the upper class ethos was carried over, and much of it persists today, especially in "traditional" liberal arts curricula.

The upper classes--see Paul Fussell's Class--value impracticality, hence the interest in art, ancient languages, classic literature. For those who can do it, abstract math and physics make the cut, but work aimed at making better gadgets veers towards the crass practicality of accounting or criminal justice, subjects missing from the liberal arts curriculum but rather popular in a white-collar-trade-school setting. (It's also why science fiction isn't considered real literature.)

And its not that there aren't, e.g., television programs about engineering, but trying to be more compelling as engineering than "real" engineering would be an uphill battle.

Don Monroe said...

I think your overall statement of the problem is right on: condensed matter physics lies in the gray zone between "big questions" and relevance, and it takes work. But I don't think that makes it particularly unusual--most science and technology lies in that gray zone. Chemistry and math and materials science and various types of engineering also have profound influence on our everyday lives and have rich technical content. And all of them are hard to sell to the public, except by appealing directly to specific impacts on ordinary people.

Moreover, even though medical stories are an easier sell, it's still hard to get people interested in stories about the nuts and bolts (the "engineering") of biological processes.

The only reason you might hope that condensed-matter physics would be different is because it's "physics." But as you know, even researchers in other areas of physics often have trouble accepting it as having the same level of profundity as their own fields (even though it motivated the Higgs mechanism!).

I'd guess the best popular case that's been made for the fundamentality of condensed matter is Bob Laughlin's A Different Universe, as you perhaps hinted in "amazingly precise emergent properties." But I don't sense that that book catalyzed any big cultural shift.

Peter Armitage said...

My thoughts from a few years ago on Jennifer Ouellette's blog Re:Graphene paraphrased here:

We condensed matter physicists (CMP) have not been good with providing a compelling narrative for our research. There may be many reasons for this, but I believe it comes in part from a misconception of how we should sell ourselves to the public.

As a field we can be justifiably proud to have discovered the physics that led to the transistor, NMR, superconducting electronics etc etc. But this boon has also been a curse. It has stifled our capacity to think creatively about outreach in areas where we don't have the crutch of technological promise to fall back on.

This is a luxury our cosmology colleagues don't have. They feel passionately about their research and they convey that passion to the public. We feel passionately about our research, but then feel compelled to tell boring stories about this or that new technology we might develop (which predictably elicits yawns and perhaps only a mental note to take advantage of said technology when it is available in Ipod form). We do this because we are bred and raised to think that technological promise is a somehow more legitimate motivation to the outside public than genuine fundamental scientific interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Due to our tremendous technological successes there is also the feeling then that at some level ALL our work should touch on technology. This is the easy strategy, but ultimately it hasn't been good for the health of the field. Moreover, the research or aspect of research that has the greatest chance of evoking feelings of real awe and wonderment is typically the precise research that has the least chance of creating viable products. Perhaps this last statement is one regarding human nature itself.

This modus operandi has lead to 3 things:

-A marginalization of some of the most exciting research.

-Big promises about technological directions when it isn't warranted.

-And most relevant for the current discussion, a lack of focus at and practice on evoking awe and wonderment.

It is telling that virtually every Phys Rev Focus on CMP ends with a sentence or two about what technological impact said discovery will have. Sometimes these connections are tenuous at best. Obviously there is no similar onus in articles on cosmology and so those Focuses can focus on what it is that really excites the researchers (instead of the tenuous backstory technological connection). This is nothing against PRF, but serves to illustrate the prevailing philosophy in public outreach.

(continued below)

Peter Armitage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Armitage said...

The reality is that many of us in CMP don't have the inclination or interest to 'make' anything at all. For instance, we may pursue novel states of matter at low temperature and consider the concept of emergence and the appearance of collective effects to be just as fundamental and irreducible as anything in string theory. We should promote what excites us in the manner that it excites us.

Cited research on graphene is a case in point. Yes, perhaps there is technological promise in graphene, but there is also a remarkable fundamental side as well. Here we believe that the electrons in graphene are described by the same formalism that applies to the relativistic particles of the Dirac equation. One can simulate the rich structure of elementary particle physics in a table top experiment! I would posit that this kind of thing is much more likely to provoke enthusiasm from the public at large then any connection to graphene as yet another possible material in new computing devices.

Our cosmology and particle physics colleagues are raised academically to believe that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a good thing. By and large they do a wonderful job of conveying these ideas to the general public. Although we believe the same thing, we CMP have presented ourselves not as people who also have access to wild and wonderful things, but as people who are discovering stuff to make stuff. We have that, but there is so much more. We need a new narrative.

Tahir said...

To add to all the excellent comments so far:

I think a major problem that the condensed matter community has is that it is really large and broad and covers a very wide smorgasbord of topics and problems. Therefore, my impression is that there is less "unity" and opinions towards a common goal, and meaning/importance of condensed matter physics. It is not a cohesive unit community, at least compared to cosmologists, particle physicists, etc...

Because of this I think it is harder to unite the community towards a common goal of presenting what is cool/important about CMP to the general public.

Just my young, naive impression.


Anonymous said...

we could take all the lasers and transistors away and see what the world thinks of that.

some clown would probably go an build an iphone out of tubes though...

Mike G said...

I echo some of the sentiment that previous posters have said. There are many important disciplines that don't have the kind of ambassadors like Hawking, Greene, and Tyson. Chemistry, Medicine, and Economics are fields that are probably more important and relevant to the public that CMP, but don't have high profile "go to" folks for interviews and public relations.

jonah said...

I'm presently a PhD student in condensed matter, experiment, and I am enormously passionate about what I do. I'll take on any cosmologist or high energy physicists for profundity and passion any day (which isn't to say that those aren't beautiful and fascinating fields).

The notion of public disinterest in CM I think is not quite accurate. I often find myself explaining aspects of CM physics to my non-science friends, and they often exhibit natural curiosity which some here have implied is reserved for more 'exotic' topics. To relate to them the excitement of the field just takes some extra imagination.

For a cosmologist, for example, it's easy to say 'universe' and things are automatically mysterious. In CM, you have to explain things in a way that brings that familiarity and then crosses it with mystery. For example, explaining the fundamental mechanism of graphite in a pencil, and going from there to graphene physics (and then nanotubes!). And from there you can do 1D physics, maybe even Fermi liquid theory if you're brave...

My point is, I believe we have only to introduce our questions in the right way and we'll find that the public is just as interested and will be just as mystified. We have only to do a better, more creative job at presenting and explaining.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. Just to clarify a couple of points....

1) Anon., I don't have any particular vision for what a successful popularization of CM would do. I think I'm a realist, and don't have any expectation of a sudden massive flood of would-be CM enthusiasts. I do think it's interesting that there are a large number of lay-people who are interested in string theory and cosmology - at least enough to justify fancy TV shows, and therefore it's interesting to ask why those topics and not my own.

2) Peter, I remember that comment and still agree with it 100%. Just this week I had a conversation with a (chemistry) colleague about NSF DMR funding, and she pointed out that nearly every award these days has discussions of technological applications.

3) Mike G, you're right, of course, that many fields of study do not have public ambassadors. People like Brian Greene are the exception rather than the rule. Still, it rankles me that, because of outreach efforts by that community, many people (including some science journalists, at times) act like high energy IS physics, and the rest of us either don't exist or are mundane.

4) Jonah, I agree. It is possible to get curious people interested - the situation is not without hope. I'll hopefully have some time to write more about this soon.

Anonymous said...

"And from there you can do 1D physics, maybe even Fermi liquid theory if you're brave..."

Luttinger liquid.

*makes shifty eyes and disappears*

Anonymous said...

Oops, I was going to make a real point too -

I think its important to recognize that (e.g.) Carl Sagan isn't Carl Sagan because of cosmology; rather cosmology is cosmology because of Carl Sagan.

If we had some really quite awful PBS specials or Daily Show interviews to point to and say "yeah, those CMP people just don't get it," then that would be one thing - I just really don't know a single CMPhysicist (even the ones who care about outreach and make significant efforts) who have even tried anything on the scale of a Carl Sagan or even a Brian Greene.

I guess my point is that, as others have put in better words, the interest gap is a myth. Brian Greene didn't sit quietly in his office and wait for the world to beat down his door. Y'all just gotta hustle.

Unknown said...

Hi Doug

I am certainly no Carl Sagan, but decided to start a blog that also covers condensed matter physics. Maybe you will find it interesting... the link is


Timmo said...

While you are right that condensed matter physics hasn't occupied the limelights in terms of popular science, I think it's possible to do better than we've done. I recently taught an introductory level undergraduate course in physics. I used Alstair Rae's Quantum Physics: A Beginner's Guide as the text. The book introduces some basic ideas of quantum mechanics, and then goes on to discuss the band theory of solids, computer circuits, superconductors, and quantum computation. We also covered liquid helium in the course. I don't know to what extent I succeeded, but I was hoping these things might capture their imagination.

Part of the appeal of condensed matter physics, at least for me, is that you come to see the everyday world as rather mysterious. It's easy to see why people might find high-energy particle physics appealing -- it's esoteric right on the surface. The trick for condensed matter physics is to get people to see that everyday things are actually quite peculiar. One has to make them seem alien and new and as posing questions. And when you start to probe the microscopic underpinnings of condensed matter phenomena, this comes out.

lafindutemps said...

Here's a recent case of the problem you've posed:

Modern Science Map

A 'map of modern science' with barely a whisper of cond mat since Bardeen & Shockley. Oh dear...