If you go by physics-related stories in the mass media, you’d probably get the impression that about 90% of physicists work at the Large Hadron Collider or some other big accelerator lab. The other 10% would be dominated by people working on foundational questions in quantum mechanics– Bell tests, teleportation, quantum information processing– with a smattering of people doing something with superconductors. The distribution in the physics blogosphere is pretty similar.
And yet, if you went by the mass media impression, you’d be way wrong. The largest division of the American Physical Society by far is the Division of Condensed Matter Physics. According to the membership statistics for 2008, there are 5595 members in the Condensed Matter division, compared to 3474 in Particles and Fields, and 2837 in my own division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics. Condensed matter physicists outnumber string theorists and accelerator jocks by a huge margin.
Yet you hardly ever see media reports on condensed matter physics.
The reason for this is fairly obvious, which is that particle physics and quantum mechanics provide a much better “hook” for pop-science stories. It’s relatively easy to explain why people are interested in high energy physics– you’ve all heard it a million times. Studying matter on the most fundamental level, origin and fate of the universe, blah, blah, blah. Quantum mechanics is an easy sell as well– it’s just freakin’ cool.
So, what’s interesting about condensed matter physics?
There’s got to be something there, after all, otherwise why would so many physicists go into that end of the business? There has to be something about condensed matter physics that grad students find interesting enough to choose it as a thesis area.
Beats me what it is, though. I took one semester of solid state out of Ashcroft and Mermin, and that was more than enough for me.
If I had to hazard a guess, though, it would be this: Condensed matter physics is good for stuff. It’s the study of solids and liquids and their physical properties, and thus just about everything we deal with on a daily basis falls into the realm of condensed matter physics. It’s about understanding the things we actually use and interact with.
Condensed matter physics is what allows us to understand the behavior of electrons in conductors and semiconductors, which lets us build computer chips and transmission lines. It’s the branch of physics that underlies materials science, which lets us make stronger and lighter composite materials to build safer and more efficient cars and planes. It’s where we find people studying superconductivity, which holds the promise of lossless power transmission and levitating trains, and all those nifty technologies that are twenty years off.
If you’ve had your life materially affected by something done by a physicist, odds are it was a condensed matter physicist.
And that’s why they get no media play. Condensed matter physics just isn’t cool. Condensed matter physics is practical, and practical is never cool.
Practical makes people’s lives better, though. And practical gets people jobs. So maybe they don’t need to be jealous of the high energy crowd, after all…
I would love to read an essay or blog post on “What’s So Interesting About Condensed Matter Physics” from somebody in the field, though. I’d like to hear what drew all those thousands of people into the field in the first place. My guess about practicality is just that– a guess. I’d love to hear from somebody who knows. Because for all I know, the people in the field really do believe that what they do is not just practical, but cool.
And if I knew why they find their field cool, I’d have a better appreciation of it. And if we all knew why they think it’s cool, maybe we’d be able to see how to convey that cool to the New York Times and get them their fair share of media attention.
(We’re currently in the middle of a fundraising drive for DonorsChoose. My goal for the challenge amounts to about $3 per daily page view on the blog. If you feel that you have gotten $3 worth of entertainment or information from this post, please consider visiting my challenge entry and making a donation.)