Monday, November 12, 2018

Book review: Solid State Insurrection

Apologies for the slow updates.  Between administrative responsibilities and trying to get out a couple of important papers, posting has been a bit slower than I would like, and this is probably going to continue for a few weeks.

If you've wondered how condensed matter physics got to where it is, more in terms of the sociology of physics rather than the particular scientific advances themselves, I strongly recommend Solid State Insurrection:  How the Science of Substance Made American Physics Matter, by Joseph D. Martin.  This book follows the development of condensed matter physics from its beginnings before WWII through to what the author views as the arrival of its modern era, the demise of the Superconducting Supercollider in the early 1990s, an event strongly associated by some with critiques by Phil Anderson.  

I got into condensed matter physics starting in the early 1990s, in the post-"More is Different" era, and CMP had strongly taken on its identity as a field dedicated to understanding the states of matter (and their associated structural, electronic, and magnetic orders) that emerge collectively from the interactions of many underlying degrees of freedom.  While on some level I'd known some of the history, Prof. Martin's book was eye-opening for me, describing how solid-state physics itself emerged from disparate, fluctuating subfields (metallurgy, in particular).   

Martin looks at the battles within the APS and the AIP into the 1940s about whether it's good or bad to have topical groups or divisions; whether it's a good or bad thing that the line between some of solid-state physics and electrical engineering can be blurry; how the societies' publication models could adapt.  Some of that reads a bit like the standard bickering that can happen within any professional society, but the undercurrent throughout is interesting, about the sway held in the postwar era by nuclear and later particle physicists.  

The story of the founding of the National Magnet Lab (originally at MIT, originally funded by the Air Force before switching to NSF) was new to me.  It's an interesting comparison between the struggles to get the NML funded (and how "pure" vs "applied" its mission should be) and the rate at which accelerator and synchrotron and nuclear science facilities were being built.  To what extent did the success of the Manhattan Project give the nuclear/particle community carte blanche from government funders to do "pure" science?  To what degree did the slant toward applications and away from reductionism reinforce the disdain which some held for solid-state (or should I say squalid state or schmutzphysik)?

Martin also presents the formalization of materials science as a discipline and its relationship to physics, the rise of the antireductionist/emergence view of condensed matter (a rebranding that began in the mid-60s and really took off after Anderson's 1972 paper and a coincident NRC report), and a recap of the fight over the SSC along the lines of condensed matter vs. high energy.   (My take:  there were many issues behind the SSC's fate.  The CM community certainly didn't help, but the nature of government contracting, the state of the economy at the time, and other factors were at least as contributory.)

In summary:  Solid State Insurrection is an informative, interesting take on the formation and evolution of condensed matter physics as a discipline.  It shows the very human, social aspects of how scientific communities grow, bicker, and change.

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