Thursday, September 25, 2014

The persistent regional nature of physics

In the 21st century, with the prevalence of air travel, global near-instantaneous communications, and active cultures of well-financed scientific research on several continents, you would think that the physics enterprise would be thoroughly homogenized, at least across places with similar levels of resources.  Sure, really expensive endeavors would be localized to a few places (e.g., CERN), but the comparatively cheap subfields like condensed matter physics would be rather uniformly spread out.

Strangely, in my (anecdotal, by necessity) experience, that doesn't seem to be the case.  One area of my research, looking at electronic/optical/thermal properties of atomic and molecular-scale junctions, has a very small number of experimental practitioners in the US (I can think of a handful), though there are several more groups in Europe and Asia.  Similarly, the relevant theory community for this work, with a few notable exceptions, is largely in Europe.   This imbalance has become clear in terms of both who I talk with about this work, and where I'm asked to speak.  Interestingly, there are also strong regional tendencies in some of the citation patterns (e.g., European theorists tend to cite European experimentalists), and I'm told this is true in other areas of physics (and presumably chemistry and biology).  I'm sure this has a lot to do with proximity and familiarity - it's much more likely for me to see talks by geographically proximal people, even if it's equally easy for me to read papers from people all over the world.

Basically, physics areas of pursuit have a (surprising to me) large amount of regional specialization.  There's been a major emphasis historically on new materials growth and discovery in, e.g., Germany, China, and Japan compared to the US (though this is being rectified, in part thanks to reports like this one).  Atomic physics w/ cold atoms has historically been dominated by the US and Europe.   I'm sure some of these trends are the result of funding decisions by governments.   Others are due to the effect of particularly influential, talented individuals that end up having long-lasting effects because the natural timescale for change at universities is measured in decades.  It will be interesting to see whether these inhomogeneities smooth out or persist over the long term.


Anonymous said...

aren't you seeing a pattern where there is none - this is a common failure of the human mind where small (and random) datasets are concerned.

You state that there are only a few groups working in ..., and then go on to state that they only exist in Western Europe and the USA.
With only a few, the chances that they are missing from some part of the world (and honestly, there is only Asia (incl. Australia) left...) is significant.

While I think I agree with the main message (see e.g. surface science being concentrated around Germany and China), one has to be careful not to draw conclusions based on insufficient data.

Anonymous said...

I think bandwidth is also a factor. It's still way easier to collaborate in person, especially the spontaneous idea-bouncing kind, and that requires proximity. Traveling across town, or even across the country, is simpler and cheaper than traveling across an ocean.

Anonymous said...

I suspect a lot of the regional differences have to do with faculty hiring. For example, MIT has always had a very visible program in AMO physics starting with Daniel Kleppner and David Pritchard. They went on to hire people like Wolfgang Ketterle who then hired some of his students as well. The nucleus of several faculty allows

In addition, faculty/research clusters allow for smaller departments to achieve excellence at the level of the top departments like Harvard and Princeton. For example, the core nucleus of compound semiconductor/materials science/condensed matter folks who came to UCSB from Bell Labs in the 1980s (Evelyn Hu, Art Gossard, etc) helped create a materials science/devices/condensed matter physics hub unrivaled by anyone. Given that UCSB knows that their excellence depends on it, they continued to build upon it. Therefore, smaller departments end up acquiring a distinct flavor and specialization.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, I don't think I'm imagining this, though I do agree with the other commenters that this whole business is likely due to the statistics of small numbers and the long persistence of "initial" conditions thanks to local feedback.