Balibar and his Beef with Science Magazine’s Depiction of a BEC

I’m coming to the end of reading Sebastian Balibar’s physics book (intended for a general audience) entitled The Atom and the Apple. Thematically, the book works by asking a basic question at the beginning of each chapter and seeing the wondrous science that has to be understood to answer such a basic question. The author pulls on a dangling thread and watches entire garments unravel. The book is interspersed with personal anecdotes, which gives the physics some semblance of humanity.

Just to whet your appetite a little, let me recount one of the amusing stories Balibar relays. In 1995, following the discovery of Bose-Einstein Condensation by the Colorado and MIT groups, Science had the following image on the cover (sorry, I couldn’t find a large picture in color anywhere, it’s supposed to be primarily blue if that helps). It shows marching soldiers, a supposed metaphor for BEC.


Balibar takes issue with this representation and goes onto say about the cover:

No, what bothered me was actually that march—those orderly
troops. True, I had bad memories of my own experiences with military marches. Before May 1968, the hierarchy at the École Polytechnique had little patience for the antics of its rebel students, and my deviance had cost me fifteen days in prison and gotten me barred from marching with my fellow students on the Champs Élysées. But regardless of these youthful memories, I saw in that march of atoms a basic error of interpretation as to what the recently discovered “Bose-Einstein” condensation was. The order of the actual condensate seemed radically different to me from the regimentation depicted on the magazine cover.
The artist at Science hadn’t just dreamt up this march all by him or herself, though: the military analogy had been hanging around in the public scientific discourse for a long time. Nevertheless, in becoming famous, this image threatened to distort the understanding of the discovery. I intended to denounce it firmly.

What Balibar had in mind about BEC is much more accurately depicted in this great little video.

The book also has some anecdotes about the history and controversy surrounding the Nobel Prizes awarded for superfluidity in liquid helium-4 among many other interesting historical detours. The discussion on radioactivity is also noteworthy. This charming little book is written with an approach that I feel more popular physics books should take, or Balibar could write a couple more himself.


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