Physics Contains Multitudes

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with the Incoherent Ponderer, but he’s exactly right regarding Scientific American‘s “The Future of Physics” issue (via PhysMath Central):

[T]his month’s issue of Scientific American has a special titled “The Future of Physics”. I was quickly disappointed when I realized that the article covers only “terascale” physics, primarily focusing on LHC.

I guess I am tired of arrogant statements like “physics” = “high energy physics”, which is how a lot of popular media characterizes it. The irony, however, is that with ILC construction in serious peril, and with LHC not even operational yet (unclear what, if anything, they will find) – the REAL “future of physics” is arguably with biophysics, condensed matter or “materials” physics and AMO. I would expect that large particle collider experiments being phased out, with more useful data coming from cosmology (=astronomy).

Now, this is partly just a matter of the constraints of headline writing– “The Future of High Energy Physics” is not as eye-catching– but it’s also part of a pernicious pattern in reporting on physics. There have been no end of stories in recent years about the “Crisis in US physics” because of the gradual shutting down of large-scale high-energy physics experiments in this country.

While this is unquestionably a crisis for the high-energy physics community in the US, physics as a whole is not in such a dire situation. To be sure, the recent budget debacle has affected funding for low-energy projects as well, but there is a huge and thriving physics community that has nothing to do with particle physics. The largest of the divisions of the American Physical Society by far is Condensed Matter Physics (5,592 to the 3,470 of Particles and Fields– even if you lump in the “Physics of Beams” division, the Condensed Matter people still outnumber the accelerator jockey 5,592 to 4,680). The biggest meeting of the year is the March Meeting, which includes:

Divisions: Condensed Matter Physics, Materials Physics, Polymer Physics, Chemical Physics, Biological Physics, Fluid Dynamics, Laser Science, Computational Physics and Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics;

Topical Groups: Instrument and Measurement Science, Magnetism and Its Applications, Statistical and Nonlinear Physics, Quantum Information

Forums: Industrial and Applied Physics, Physics and Society, History of Physics, International Physics, and Education and Physics; Graduate Student Affairs

The scientific program for the meeting is four and a half days packed with talks and posters, many of them fascinating, and not a single one of them involves the LHC or the ILC.

Physics is a whole lot bigger than high energy physics, and it would be nice if that fact got a little more recognition.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    January 19, 2008

    The sin qua non fundable physics is diversity physics. Divert a $billion or two through Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Minority voices must be given equal (overriding, as females are 56% of college undergrads and still not equal) status to those of historic European Protestant patriarchal oppressors of Peoples of Colour. If you want hate language, just try spelling “Episcopalian” (scholarly elevation of “bisexual hip hops” portmanteau) or “Presbyterian” (“old farts”).

    We shouldn’t be building the LHC, we should be building pyramids.

  2. #2 Index Guy
    January 19, 2008

    I agree with you Chad, high energy physics steals a lot of attention from everything else. My personal impression is that even theory steals a lot of attention from experiments in HEP.

    But is this arrogance related to “physics vs. stamp collecting”?

  3. #3 andy
    January 19, 2008

    Good points.

    I used to be in low-energy nuclear physics — you know, van de Graaff accelerators when 14 Mev protons was a big deal! — doing what to me then was really fun stuff like nuclear energy levels, spins, parities, decay schemes etc. and comparing them to variety of nuclear models — shell, Nilsson, and cluster. Got to do both experiment and “theory” — what they now dismiss as “phenomenology”.

    Our group was anywhere from 3-7 people, depending on students, postdocs and visitors. We shared night runs and the inevitable “sparks” that shut the accelerator down.

    Then they closed the lab. Not “fundamental” enough.

    (Now I’m a bureaucrat.) The future of physics is nothing what we might expect. Fields go up, and they equally go down.

    Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

  4. #4 Neil B.
    January 19, 2008

    I agree. The more interesting future of physics will be subtlety and unexpected outcomes of having complexity and combinations of factors etc, as well as loose ends and discovery of paradoxes and things that don’t fit.

  5. #5 L.Lamb
    January 20, 2008

    I agree with previous comments about the field of Physics “going down” as “subtlety and unexpected outcomes” related to the “complexity and combinations of factors.” As far as paradoxes, I’m pretty sure we’ve had our fill of those, and it is high time to find “greater” truths and facts, i.e. it all fits, just not in the way we had envisioned it fitting. Nature, in the broad sense repeatedly shows that it cannot and will not be controlled or conquered, while human nature, on the other hand, seems to reveal a different story. In the way individuals develop via the process and development of differentiation, the field of physics appears to be going through a forefather rebellion. Gluouns, mesons, bosons, Higgs, quarks, strings, chaos, M theories…these will all soon show themselves to be (post-modern) artifacts, symbolic of an adolescent search for meaning and, well…God. Hopefully, we will all look back and laugh at the time when we were looking for God in a billion dollar Collider. Hmmm…and how is the motivation of contemporary physicists different than that of extremists -religious or otherwise?

  6. #6 perry
    January 20, 2008

    well you are right, and as an AMO/QI type, I tire of particle geeks asking why I don’t believe that QM is right, and move on already. Or they think I do applied physics.

    Particles and cosmology are the tips of the spear in terms of discovering (possibly…) new LAWS, so I can see that point. “All” we do is apply Schrodinger, Maxwell, and maybe Dirac.

    Now CM has provided several (many?) things that particle theorists have stolen, Higgs, etc….

    But maybe us poor AMO types are just quantum versions of electrical engineers! Its still fun! And I’ve had more than one particle/cosmo/CM folk COMPLETELY booger up Bell’s theorem.

    For physics to stay viable though, we must not just include “tip of the spear stuff”; we gave MRI to the chemists and such, if we are to remain viable we need to KEEP our cool stuff! So physicists that snort that the “only” physics that matters is particle/cosmo are merely helping destroy the field!

  7. #7 perry
    January 20, 2008

    well you are right, and as an AMO/QI type, I tire of particle geeks asking why I don’t believe that QM is right, and move on already. Or they think I do applied physics.

    Particles and cosmology are the tips of the spear in terms of discovering (possibly…) new LAWS, so I can see that point. “All” we do is apply Schrodinger, Maxwell, and maybe Dirac.

    Now CM has provided several (many?) things that particle theorists have stolen, Higgs, etc….

    But maybe us poor AMO types are just quantum versions of electrical engineers! Its still fun! And I’ve had more than one particle/cosmo/CM folk COMPLETELY booger up Bell’s theorem.

    For physics to stay viable though, we must not just include “tip of the spear stuff”; we gave MRI to the chemists and such, if we are to remain viable we need to KEEP our cool stuff! So physicists that snort that the “only” physics that matters is particle/cosmo are merely helping destroy the field!

  8. #8 capella
    January 21, 2008

    I have to say, some of the problem seems to stem from arrogance within the High-Energy community. As a soft matter physicist, I’ve been told multiple times by high-energy researches – once in the middle of an interview – that my work is “not real physics”. And yet there are dozens of sessions at the March Meeting of the APS for just this sort of work. Perhaps this stems back to the physics vs. chemistry controversy: lots of people seem to think that anything on a nano or micron scale is chemistry or engineering, and only subatomic particles are “real physics”.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    January 21, 2008

    I agree that part of the problem is the attitude among high-energy types (including some prominent bloggers) that nothing is more important or interesting than high-energy physics. But I would expect nothing less, as that’s inherent in the sturcture of academic science. Of course they think that what they’re doing is the most important and interesting thing in science– they would have to, because we’re not paid enough to do it otherwise.

    The thing is, just because they think it, doesn’t mean that the media and general public have to buy into it. But that’s what’s happening, for a variety of reasons.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 22, 2008

    #9: “But that’s what’s happening, for a variety of reasons.”

    The reasons being what, in your opinion, Chad?

    And, if so, what should we do (as citizens or a physicists)?

  11. #11 Daryl McCullough
    January 22, 2008

    I agree with capella. This hierarchy within physics is related to the hierarchy within the sciences. (Physics is considered more of a “real science” than chemisty, and within physics, particle physics is considered more “real” than condensed matter physics). That doesn’t answer the question, though: why doesn’t chemistry have the glamor of physics?

    Of course, I’m sure many condensed-matter physicists think that it’s perfectly reasonable to consider physics a nobler pursuit than chemistry, but reject the idea that particle physics is more noble than condensed matter physics.

  12. #12 jonm
    January 23, 2008

    Another lame whine from the condensed matter side of the fence. At the risk of pointing out the obvious …

    - The vast majority of the readership of SciAm is more interested in particle physics, cosmology, etc. than in condensed matter, so it is natural for them focus on these areas

    - the hierarchy within physics goes beyond the ‘more vs. less fundamental’ axis. For generations, the competition at grad schools has been about getting into fundamental physics, leaving condensed matter, etc. as minor leagues compared to theoretical physics. In contrast, biology and computer science now attract many elite students who would have gone into particle physics forty years ago. This may be unpleasant for condensed matter types, but it is clearly true.

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 23, 2008

    Biology overlaps condensed matter physics. The intersection is sometimes called soft matter physics. Cells and gels. DNA Engineering. DNA computers.

    Congress gets it — Biology is the real deal for the 21st century. Bill Gates gets it — why else would he steal Leroy Hood, inventor of DNA sequencer, future Nobel laureate, away from being Chair of Bio at Caltech, with all his grads and postdocs, and fund the Institute for Systems Biology?

    Soft matter physics rocks, and changes the world, with or without hard matter or soft matter nanotechnology.

    Brain Theory and Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science and Neuroeconomics and all that — the brain is soft and squishy, but step by step yielding insights from Physics techniques.

    Physics of Computation; quantum computers; infophysics; loop quantum gravity computers, whatever, all that.

    Physics contains multitudes.

    I like your analysis of what has gone wrong PR-wise, and what needs to be done.

    First, we TRY.

    Right on, Chad!

  14. #14 L.Lamb
    January 24, 2008

    just to follow up- it seems absolutely esential for the field of physics to study and understand the mechanics and dynamics of perception (esp. if there is some agreement with regads to the contributions of individuals like Niels Bohr)…
    Thanks, that’s all…

  15. #15 L.Lamb
    January 27, 2008

    The way I see it is the high energy physicists are suffering from a classic case of cognitive dissonace. Condensed matter, soft matter, etc are foundational, less egoically driven and in the long run, more beneficial to mankind, it is only a matter of time before high energy takes a big hit. Everyone who cares, is aware and has the right motivation, knows who the real work horses are.

  16. #16 Martin Musatov
    May 3, 2009

    http://www.time.gov/timezone.cgi?Pacific/d/-8

    Let $\Sigma $ be a finite alphabet. A set $S \subset \Sigma ^ * $ is called sparse if the number of members of $S$ having length at most $n$ is bounded above by a polynomial in $n$. Let $ \leqq _m^P $ denote polynomial-time many-one reducibility, and let $ \leqq _{bptt}^P $ denote the more general polynomial-time bounded positive truth-table reducibility. We prove: (1) $ \leqq _{bptt}^P $ reducibility of a coNP-hard set to a sparse set implies ${\text{NP}} = {\text{P}}$, and (2) $ \leqq _{bptt}^P $ reducibility of an NP-hard set to a sparse set which is itself in NP implies ${\text{NP}} = {\text{P}}$. (1) generalizes Fortune’s result [F]. He proved it for the case of $ \leqq _m^P $ reducibility. (2), for the case of $ \leqq _m^P $ reducibility, was proved by Mahaney [M], even without assuming that the sparse set itself is in NP. Our results imply that if a coNP-hard set is a finite union of sets which are $ \leqq _m^P $ reducible to sparse sets, then ${\text{NP}} = {\text{P}}$. We then investigate a certain nonpositive polynomial-time truth-table reducibility of NP-hard sets to sparse sets, and obtain new results regarding the structure of sets hard for NP or for ETIME. Finally, we investigate the possibility of existence of sets in NP–coNP which are $ \leqq _m^P $ reducible to sparse sets. Some of our techniques involve generalizations of and variations on the techniques of Berman [B], Fortune [F] and Mahaney [M]. ©1983 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics

    (As supplied by publisher.)
    History: Received 1981-07-09
    Permalink: http://dx.doi.org/10.1137/0212027

  17. #17 Martin Musatov
    May 8, 2009

    He proved it for the case of $ \leqq _m^P $ reducibility. … we investigate the possibility of existence of sets in NP–coNP which are $ \leqq _m^P $ reducible to sparse sets. … Posted by: Martin Musatov | May 3, 2009 12:18 AM …