Condensed Matter Physics in the Eyes of the Public: A Note from N.P. Armitage

Note: This post is actually a comment on Jennifer Oullette’s blog Cocktail Party Physics. It was in response to a post about why particle physics tends to generate more wonder and hype in the eyes of the media and public at large compared to condensed matter physics. The comment was originally posted in 2006 by N. P. Arimtage, but it still rings true today. I reprint it below:

Nuestra culpa. You’re right, Jennifer. We condensed matter physicists (henceforth 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 (and thereby funding agencies).

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 made us lazy and 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 have to (get to?) convey that passion to the public (with predictably good results). 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. This is because, for many of us, technology isn’t our passion and it shows. 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 current modus operadi has lead to 3 things:

-A marginalization of some of the most exciting research (which may have no even tenuous connection to commercialization).

-Big promises about technological directions when it isn’t warranted. And then consequences when results fail to live up to prognostications.

-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 (short news release-style blurbs from the American Physical Society on notable discoveries) 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 Phys. Rev. Focus, but serves to illustrate the prevailing philosophy in public outreach. The “public” can tell when we’re bluffing and they certainly can feel passion or lack thereof.

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.

The research that Jennifer cites on graphene is a case in point. Yes, perhaps (but perhaps not) there is technological promise in graphene, but there is also a remarkable (and awe inspiring) 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 so much more. We need a new business model and a new narrative.

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2 responses to “Condensed Matter Physics in the Eyes of the Public: A Note from N.P. Armitage

  1. Big (fat) YES!
    Now the most important point is first to communicate this to the party left out of the discussion above: the funding agencies, and most importantly those “above” them. While NSF is reasonable, DOE (“basic” energy sciences?) is not so much. Why? Because the people in congress only read the press releases of funded research. And they appear to only care about possible applications.
    That needs to change. If we are successful in getting the idea across to congress, half of the issue is solved; it’d be “allowed” to be excited about a discovery in itself. That excitement will carry over to the general public.

    In short, I believe the root cause is that the people doling out the money need some change in thinking on this issue.

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  2. I absolutely agree.Just recently I failed to bring the awe to the non-scientist friends about my work thinking of the intro point, in other words, where to start with the explanations. It would be great to simplify the ideas for the general audience, so they could appreciate the ‘wild and wonderful things’ as well, e.g. (maybe stupid one) calling ‘graphene’ – “the thinnest matter” for the start and then elaborate on that. I will think on the fancy, but still proper names, for the next round.

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