Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Public perceptions of condensed matter physics

Why are string theorists celebrities who write best-selling books and popular documentaries?
Why are cosmology and particle physics seen as "fundamental" and answering profound questions about "why we are here?" as they push back the frontiers of knowledge with their great intellects and imagination. In contrast, condensed matter physics gets little public attention and is not seen as exciting, "fundamental", or intellectually challenging.

There is a helpful and stimulating paper
Prestige Asymmetry in American Physics: Aspirations, Applications, and the Purloined Letter Effect
Joseph D. Martin
Why do similar scientific enterprises garner unequal public approbation? High energy physics attracted considerable attention in the late-twentieth-century United States, whereas condensed matter physics – which occupied the greater proportion of US physicists – remained little known to the public, despite its relevance to ubiquitous consumer technologies.... popular emphasis on the mundane technological offshoots of condensed matter physics and its focus on human-scale phenomena have rendered it more recondite than its better-known sibling field. News reports about high energy physics emphasize intellectual achievement; reporting on condensed matter physics focuses on technology. And whereas frontier-oriented rhetoric of high energy physics communicates ideals of human potential, discoveries that smack of the mundane highlight human limitations and fail to resonate with the widespread aspirational vision of science – a consequence I call “the purloined letter effect.”
What is this "purloined letter"??
Understanding prestige asymmetry requires discerning how the values communicated in the discourse of scientific discovery relate to the values and expectations of the surrounding society. Many in the United States see science as a source of faith in both individual potential and collective possibility, and look to it as a way to overcome human limitations. John H. Evans has documented “faith in science producing meaning” .... Science functions for many as “a source of societal hope – a way to save our society from its troubles, in the same way that societies have looked to other saviors, like religion”... Some rhetoric of scientific discovery, however, undercuts the narrative of science as a testament to human potential. When discoveries are presented as evidence that we have missed something obvious, it highlights our failings and limitations alongside our accomplishments. We can only recognize such achievements by also acknowledging our collective failure to discover earlier what was in front of our eyes all along. In these instances, scientific discoveries fail to promote the values that evidence suggests best resonate with consumers of scientific media. I call this the purloined letter effect, after Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 short story in which a stolen letter hidden in plain sight is uncovered in a way that exposes the police, who had failed to find it, as mulish and unimaginative.
This narrative of "science as salvation", particularly in popular books, has also been discussed by Mary Midgley and by Gregory Schrempp. More recently Ian Hesketh has argued that Big History is in this genre.

Martin illustrates his argument by considering press reports about different Nobel Prizes.
Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam’s prize for electroweak unification .... Both the LA Times and the Tribune ... gave prominent billing to Weinberg’s and Glashow’s statements about the fundamental importance of their work for understanding the way the universe works – and its manifest absence of practical applications. The .. [New York Times] toasted “a theory so profound as to affect man’s perception of existence” . 
The 1970s condensed matter prizes all recognized fundamental contributions, in particular theoretical developments in magnetism and work on the quantum properties of solids. US papers nevertheless routinely described these contributions as undergirding technological developments, with efforts to explain the content of the research either perfunctory or absent. 
The 1977 prize recognized theorists Philip Anderson, John Van Vleck, and Nevill Mott. The Nobel committee cited them “for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems.” The NY Times reported that the winners “were cited for work underlying the development of computer memories, office copying machines and many other devices of modern electronics,” and made little effort to clarify the theoretical work behind the prize. The AP report pointed to lasers, better glass, and copper IUDs ... Reuters tied the laureates’ “‘solid state’ physics theories” to “computer memories, pocket calculators, modern radios, office copiers, and solar energy converters” The emphasis was not only squarely on technology, but disproportionately on the work-a-day technologies that were becoming part of the furniture of Cold War America. High energy physics changed our perceptions of our very existence; condensed matter was the physics of photocopiers.
I thank Andrew Zangwill for bringing the paper to my attention.

I think that condensed matter physics is intellectually challenging and exciting. Furthermore, as it is all about emergence and complexity it addresses fundamental questions and produces concepts and methodologies that are not just relevant to making widgets but addressing important issues in a wide range of intellectual endeavors from biology to sociology.

1 comment:

  1. I think to some extent, condensed matter physics could ride on the tail of the genetic perception of "Quantum Mechanics" with the mystery end wonder that comes with it. I think the name "Quantjm Materials" is a good start.