Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Solid State or Condensed Matter Physics?

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but that is not appropriate. Condensed matter physics does not just involve solids but also phenomena in liquids, liquid crystals, superfluids, and polymer melts.  Solid state physics is a subset of condensed matter physics. The latter term was arguably coined by Phil Anderson, when he and Mott renamed their research group at Cambridge in the 1970s. One can view research fields or course titles as a list of topics or as a way of thinking about certain parts of reality. Solids exhibit rich phenomena including magnetism and superconductivity. However, it is best to actually view the solids as (an almost irrelevant) substrate for the phenomena.

Like many things, this perspective arguably started with Landau. His theory of phase transitions in the 1930s did not consider atomic structure or chemical composition. Even structural phase transitions were viewed in terms of symmetry change, not in terms of explicit microscopic details. In 1950 this led to the Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity. This all suggested a unified approach to phase transitions.
Furthermore, Landau's Fermi liquid theory papers were originally concerned with understanding liquid 3He, not electrons in metallic crystals.

This idea was further highlighted in the 1970s with the study of critical phenomena and the associated idea of universality. Specifically, the critical behaviour of an XY magnet, a superconductor, and a superfluid, are the same (i.e. they have the same critical exponents). The critical behaviour of the liquid-gas transition, an Ising magnet, and the order-disorder transition in a binary alloy are the same. The view that the solid state might actually not be the key feature for understanding and describing superconductivity was highlighted in the 1950s by Fritz London in his two-volume book, Superfluids, which suggested the two phenomena were intimately connected. Beginning in 1968, De Gennes took a condensed matter perspective in applying order parameters and scaling ideas to “soft matter”: liquid crystals, polymers, wetting, …

The important element to this conceptual view of condensed matter is that it provides a unifying perspective on phenomena in a diverse range of materials. It also brings to the fore how a wide suite of powerful theoretical and experimental tools (esp. neutron and x-ray scattering) can be used to study diverse materials. One of the key theoretical strategies is that of effective Hamiltonians, which is not unique to condensed matter, because it just reflects the hierarchy of energy, length, and times scales that result from emergence. This then leads to an intellectually rich interchange of ideas and techniques from other fields of physics, particularly quantum field theory.

More recently, this unity is illustrated by ultracold atomic gases which can be used to study some phenomena that had previously only been studied in solids.


  1. Ross,
    off-topic, but I just read this (when I was scouring around on his blog in view of the room temperature superconductivity paper on the arXiv - strange issue).

    I think this post will resonate (at least in part) with your own openness about our well-being within the scientific enterprise.

    It is an older post, but I think it is a good post (at least, I recognize very much in here...) and, as you indeed regularly do, these things need to keep being emphasized.
    This is not so much recognizing that problems exist, but more an approach to deal with our ((un-?)justified) feelings of shortcoming.

  2. pcs...
    the web site you have cited is of Brian Skinner
    a postdoc from MIT who has questioned the Indian Institute of science results. There is a lot of drama and some theatrics. Here is a web site below which gives details.
    A Room Temperature Superconductor? Well. . .

    Now B Skinners twitter thread is interesting.

    Then a post from Netherlands on this
    Lets see how this drama unfolds.
    Bit of general write up below with the theatre of absurd.