Sunday, January 08, 2017

Physics is not just high energy and astro/cosmology.

A belated happy new year to my readers.  Back in 2005, nearly every popularizer of physics on the web, television, and bookshelves was either a high energy physicist (mostly theorists) or someone involved in astrophysics/cosmology.  Often these people were presented, either deliberately or through brevity, as representing the whole discipline of physics.  Things have improved somewhat, but the overall situation in the media today is not that different, as exemplified by the headline of this article, and noticed by others (see the fourth paragraph here, at the excellent blog by Ross McKenzie).

For example, consider, which has an annual question that they put to "the most complex and sophisticated minds".   This year the question was, what scientific term or concept should be more widely known?  It's a very interesting piece, and I encourage you to read it.  They got responses from 206 contributors (!).   By my estimate, about 31 of those would likely say that they are active practicing physicists, though definitions get tricky for people working on "complexity" and computation.  Again, by my rough count, from that list I see 12-14 high energy theorists (depending on whether you count Yuri Milner, who is really a financier, or Gino Segre, who is an excellent author but no longer an active researcher) including Sabine Hossenfelder, one high energy experimentalist, 10 people working on astrophysics/cosmology, four working on some flavor of quantum mechanics/quantum information (including the blogging Scott Aronson), one on biophysics/complexity, and at most two on condensed matter physics.   Seems to me like representation here is a bit skewed.  

Hopefully we will keep making progress on conveying that high energy/cosmology is not representative of the entire discipline of physics....


Cesar Uliana said...


totally agree about the skewness in representations, AMO fellows could be even more aggravated, but I do think that condensed matter folks have to shoulder a part of the blame, as you guys have a terrible PR department. I recall as an undergrad one professor trying to motivate a seminar on spintronics telling us about the end of Moore's law and whatnot. I also recall every student being bored to death, that was a seminar on technology, not on physics proper!

I think that overemphasizing technological applications of condensed matter research instead of talking about the really cool phenomena hinders the field, both in attracting students and the media. After all the question was about concepts and ideas, not technology, and people think condensed matter folks are glorified engineers. Heck, the guy who choose metamaterials didn't wait to talk about technology. It seems a consequence of people getting used to write grants promising the new groundbreaking microchip or whatever.

Really sorry for the rant, but it is sad that an area of physics that has orthogonality catastrophe, magnetic materials (even ferromagnetism is really cool when you think of it), superconducting phases - and that's just stopping in the 70s, chooses to talk about transistors. Honestly, even cold welding is a much more interesting topic.

pcs said...

Cesar, I fully agree with you.

Case in point, the APS asks a bunch of questions to ascertain whether they want to publicize certain talks at the March meeting. This appears to heavily lean on whether one can claim to be the hottest, coldest, fastest, smallest, ... etc.

These characterizations are sometimes valid, but they did not drive (the majority of) the researchers. In fact, researchers driven by attaining such superlatives may enable new physics, but are not necessarily aiming at that.

To me the fact that a discovery can be made (new things can be learned!) in condensed matter physics - regardless of whether it's the xxx-est - should be used to advertise.
THAT is what excites us.

That (discoveries) is what gets the publicity for high energy.
Yes, acceleration energies went up, but the simple fact that Higgs was discovered (confirmed) was exciting, NOT whether it was the highest energy attained or something like that. Similar for the gravitational waves: yes, it was the smallest displacement ever measured, but that was not the point. The point was the discovery of the GWs - and that is what garnered excitement.

Focusing on the xxx-est relegates us to fancy engineers indeed.
Science = discovery (=learning!). ANd advertising in any other way equates to partial deceit.