Big Science and Outreach

In comments to my complaint about the over-identification of physics with particle physics, I noted that this is largely because high-energy physicists have been successful in getting the media and general public to buy into their belief that high-energy physics is the coolest and most important thing in physics, for a number of reasons. Jonathan Vos Post asks:

The reasons being what, in your opinion, Chad?

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

I think most of it comes down to the scale of the experiments and the collaborations that run them. There are two components to this: the large size of the experimental collaborations provides a degree of centralization to the field that makes it much easier to coordinate outreach and PR efforts; and the size and mind-boggling cost of the experiments creates a more immediate need for that outreach, to convince people that it's worth several billion dollars to smash subatomic particles into one another.

This is why you see organized outreach efforts on the Internet from the high-energy community, and not others-- the Quantum Diaries project, and the US LHC blogs, for example. With big collaborations, it's easier to go through and recruit people who will be good at that sort of thing, and do good for the larger community.

In low-energy physics, we don't have either of thse factors. A big experiment in AMO physics runs a few million dollars, which is the round-off error in the big collaborations' budgets. There's no real need to drum up major public support for new BEC experiments, because the funding for those is small enough to come out of the normal NSF budget, without requiring special action. And this also means that there's not really the same kind of central coordination that you see in the high-energy world. Everybody in AMO physics has their own little research group, and they're responsible for all the business of running those groups-- they write all the grants, they write all the papers, they supervise all the lab work.

There are undoubtedly people in the AMO physics world who would be excellent bloggers, and could do great work raising the profile of the subject. There's no mechanism in place to identify them and encourage them to do this sort of work, though, and the community as a whole doesn't see a pressing need for it.

What can we do about it as low-energy physicists? Well, we could try. I was disappointed that the only people to step up and make an organized outreach effort online during the "World Year of Physics" in 2005 were the particle physicists. The APS or its component units should've done something similar to the "Quantum Diaries" project, showcasing the breadth and diversity of physics research, not just highlighting accelerator work. That was a really unfortunate missed opportunity, but there's no reason they couldn't launch something. Well, launch something better than the rather intermittent Physics Central, anyway...

It's a bit of an uphill climb, because it's hard to compete with the sheer scale of the big accelerators-- nobody's going to do an hour-long Discovery Channel documentary about the engineering marvels that go into making superconducting flux qubits, for example, because it's a dinky little thing on a chip. There's a gee-whiz factor to detectors the size of buildings that's hard to top with anything from the low-energy world. But there's plenty of fascinating material to be found in the low-energy world, and there's no reason it couldn't catch on, if we make the effort to sell it.


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The other factor for high-energy physics is the 'fundamental nature of the universe' quotient. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is that big supercolliders are really going after the foundations of physics in ways that low-energy physics doesn't. Kind of an echo of the 'stamp collecting' comment.

You got the tag already. That'll teach me to post more quickly...

There is quite a bit of public interest in high energy theory, also done by and large in small isolated groups, and lots of it is unrelated to the big accelerator projects. So, with sufficient effort one can get the public interested in genuinely interesting stuff, certainly I see no reason why all the cool things happening in the AMO world in the last decade should not get more exposure.

I think the public interest in high energy theory is of the same kind as the public interest in professional sports. The player is concerned with details of technique. The observers could care less and follow the stats of various players and teams.

Physicist cards, anyone? We could put the h-index, number of publications, etc. on as stats for people to follow.

If my sports analogy is vaguely correct, then it will be harder to get this level of interest in things like AMO physics. With particle theory, there seems to be an endgame, a set of rules everyone is playing by, and a goal to play towards, a way to keep score. This is false, but it fits to zeroth order. In most fields, it doesn't even fit to zeroth order.

How much does the diversity that comes with the smaller scale low-energy experiments hurt their publicity? Suppose the NY Times has 10 articles on condensed matter physics and 10 on high-energy physics in a given year. The condensed matter articles are going to cover 10 different groups researching 10 different things, while the high-energy articles are going to include 6-7 on the LHC (or closely related) and maybe a few on smaller scale high-energy experiments. That repetition has to breed some familiarity and a reader that has read about the LHC before is probably more likely to read another article about it ("Oh, look! I've heard of that before!"). Even if you ignore that the big experiments can afford better publicity, aren't smaller scale experiments at a disadvantage for this reason?

Besides, big is sexy. Attach a 10,000 ton piece of junk to your laser, call it the ELWB (Extremely Large WhatchmaBob), and watch the curious masses come.... :)

Another component is that a lot of other work in physics has much clearer industrial / commercial application (even when it's pretty esoteric you can do a plausible hand-wave for a telecommunications, materials, or biomedical application). High energy folks can't do that nearly as easily, so they take their outreach and education efforts far more seriously - it's essential for them to get funding. And for this reason, it's hard to begrudge their visibility. On the other hand, I almost didn't consider engineering physics as a freshman because I thought I'd have to work on accelerators for my career, and it wasn't until later that I found out all the other stuff you can do with a physics degree. But we should be careful not to turn on each other during a tough budgetary period.

It's almost needless to say that CM/AMO is a vast and fascinating field, and the major advances in other areas of physics (HEP, astro, etc.) often are the result of advances in condensed matter physics.

My question is why you feel that particle physics in particular is somehow stealing either money or thunder from CM/AMO. Do you really feel that working on understanding fundamental building blocks of nature (i.e. high-energy physics) runs counterproductive to exploring new ways to understand nature from nano to macroscopic scales (i.e. CM/AMO)? Do you really feel that it's a zero-sum game, that the two fields are competitors? Perhaps you might examine the correlation between U.S. funding of particle physics, and of condensed matter physics. You'll find that the correlation is strongly positive, both in the distant and the recent past. How can you possibly not feel that the fields are complementary? Why fight your colleagues when there are so many things that the U.S. spends money on that really _are_ a waste of money? Do you really, actually believe that trying to determine the basic building blocks of the universe is one of them?

Bahrad nails it I think. As for HEP being good at this World Wide Web thingy -- well, perhaps they've had a wee bit more experience at it. And a more pressing need for it -- big collaborations needing to exchange info amongst wide flung sites was the original impetus after all.

Besides what could be cooler than things like shooting particles 735km through the Earth to be measured in a massive detector built ship-in-a-bottle style in an iron mine. Compare that to shining a laser (oh, so 70's -- toys to be purchased in every drugstore) on some bit of something and watching it twinkle, or whatever it is that it does. :-)

By Don't Panic (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink