Saturday, July 24, 2010

Popularizing Condensed Matter

Chad Orzel was discussing the difficulty of popularizing condensed matter physics.  It's a bit of a problem.  Everyone knows about cosmology and particle physics and astrophysics, but most people I've met don't even know what condensed matter physics is.  This is despite the fact that condensed matter physics is probably the biggest field of physics, with the most practical applications.  What's worse, this has become my problem, since I intend to go into condensed matter physics.

I don't know if I could really describe the condensed matter at this point.  I've only just started!  But as I understand it, condensed matter deals with all the "condensed" forms of matter, like liquids and solids.

People ask me, does condensed matter physics study things like this desk?  This teacup?  This tea?  Uh... not exactly.  From what I can tell, much of condensed matter is concerned with things with interesting electronic properties.  The electronics in your computer?  Condensed matter.  Solar panels?  Condensed matter.  Friggin' magnets, how do they work?  Condensed matter.  Not everything in condensed matter deals with electronic properties, but it's a good chunk.

You might also be familiar with some words like semiconductors, superconductors, and Bose-Einstein condensates.  All condensed matter.

I'm sure you find all that tremendously boring.  But then, I don't choose my career based on what I think would be good to blog about.  So why did I choose condensed matter?  What's so great about it?  You know, besides the sheer practicality of it?

As the regulars know, one of my favorite parts of physics is quantum mechanics.  But you can't just specialize in quantum mechanics.  That would be like a mathematician who specializes in algebra.  Quantum mechanics is just a tool we use to solve other problems.  Nearly every branch of physics uses at least a little quantum mechanics, but condensed matter uses a lot.  For me, that makes it exciting, but I think it's hard to appreciate if you don't study physics.

In introductory condensed matter, the first thing you talk about are crystals.  A crystal is a repeating structure of atoms.  And then we take this geometry, and do quantum physics to it.  Clearly, since millions of millions of billions of atoms are involved, you can't solve the problem exactly, so we've got to use models and approximations.  There's always plenty of theoretical work to be done because we need different models for different situations.

So how do I convey this excitement to a popular audience?  I think because of the nature of the subject, it's harder for popular audiences to understand.  I think it's harder for me to understand.  There are huge areas of condensed matter physics that I sort of understand, but would not be confident to write about.  There are fewer pretty pictures.  Nothing flashy or exotic, just little pieces of matter.  In other fields, I often draw upon narratives and analogies which are tried and tested, but in condensed matter I have to think up my narratives from scratch.

I am, of course, ignoring the question of whether it is worth popularizing condensed matter physics in the first place.  After all, we don't need to popularize every single field of science.  However, I am personally interested in writing about it.  So there.

Is there any particular part of condensed matter physics that you would be interested in hearing about?


DeralterChemiker said...


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