Friday, September 4, 2020

The intellectual legacy of Phil Anderson

I am looking forward to reading Andrew Zangwill's book, A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many, that should be available in January 2021.

Andy recently gave a beautiful talk at an ICAM meeting on the life and science of Phil Anderson. I highly recommend it. Yesterday, at the UQ condensed matter theory group meeting we watched it and discussed it.

A few things that stood out to me, partly because some were new to me.
``PWA was a brilliant intuitionist who did more than any other person to transform the patchwork of ideas and techniques of what was formerly called solid state physics into the deep, subtle, and intellectually coherent discipline know as condensed matter physics.''

Phil's wife, Joyce, had an MA in English literature and edited all his prose pieces. This may explain how well written his writing for general audiences, such as Physics Today columns and book reviews in The Times Higher Education Supplement were so well written. In contrast, Phils talks and some papers were rather obscure.

PWA was a contrarian. He did not follow the pack. This is embodied in the fact that he chose to work on his PhD at Harvard with van Vleck, rather than Schwinger, who was chosen by eleven of his peers! van Vleck said "follow the data". During this time he was a friend of Tom Lehrer, a mathematics graduate student who became famous for writing and performing satirical songs with a strong social justice theme.

Phil did a BS in Electronic Physics (essentially Radio Engineering) and did not learn any modern physics. He did a PhD in chemical physics. It was only at Bell Labs that he started working on condensed matter problems. There he had three significant mentors: Conyers Herring, Gregory Wannier, and Charles Kittel.

Phil's 1952 paper on antiferromagnetism contained the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking. But, this was not appreciated for a decade.

Phil's 1957 localisation paper and his 1961 magnetic impurities paper [the two works cited for his Nobel Prize] were both stimulated by talking to experimentalists at Bell Labs [George Feher and Berndt Matthias, respectively].

Concepts in Solids, based on his graduate lectures at Cambridge in 1961-2, was revolutionary for the time because the focus was on the properties of model Hamiltonians, rather than detailed phenomenology.

Phil's criticisms of high energy physics, its reductionism and drawing resources away from "tabletop" science, began as early as 1971, when he wrote a New Scientist article on the subject. 

But there is a lot more. Watch the video!

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