Wanted : Better outreach for cond-mat

February 6, 2007

Sometime ago, Micheal Fisher had come to TIFR. And he gave a public lecture about critical phenomena. It was a great lecture and the presentation was quite impressive.

However, it was supposed to be a public lecture and a lot of non-physicists were there in the audience. Fisher did try his best to take them along, but, I suspect most of them were lost [1]. It is, in fact, quite unfortunate. I think the kind of things he was talking about, are the kind of things everybody should know about.

As Cosma Shalizi writes in his notebook on statistical mechanics, “Statistical Mechanics (and Condensed Matter) [are the] first mathematical, natural science of emergent properties”. But, sadly enough, as he adds

If a non-scientist wants to learn about some large and important part of science, say planetary astronomy or genetics, there are usually a handful of reliable, uncontroversial, well-written, non-technical books about it to be found in the stores and libraries, which will convey at least something of the field’s history, problems, results and methods. By this point there must be dozens of good popular books written on evolution, particle physics, cosmology, relativity and quantum mechanics, notwithstanding that the last two are about as abstract and abstruse as science gets. There are even excellent popularizations of mathematics, in a continuous tradition from E. T. Bell (if not before). ….

A few months ago, when I was trying to explain some parts of my research to my father, I realized I was assuming he knew what statistical mechanics was, and something about how it worked, when in fact he did not. My first thought was to pass on some popular work about statistical mechanics (it’s only fair; he did it to me constantly when I was younger). A great many thoughts later I realized I could not think of a single one which didn’t stake out some very peculiar philosophical position, or did more than just blab about the second law, never mind something as good as Einstein for Beginners or The First Three Minutes or Does God Play Dice? Granted that relativity and particles and chaos are sexy, and statistical mechanics is not, it’s peculiar that there’s nothing. Stat. mech. is, after all, one of the essential theories of current physics, actually used by chemists and biologists and materials scientists, etc., the part of physics most directly applicable to daily life (you could illustrate the core of it with a coffee cup, and the whole with a kitchen), and bound up with deep puzzles about why time goes the way it does. This cries out for a remedy.(italics in the original)

And the deeper you go in condensed matter, popular science books become rarer to find. Whenever I try to talk about condensed matter physics to somebody back home, I am irrevocably drawn into talking about its “usefulness” vs what makes it scientifically interesting. Peter Armitage indeed has a point when he wrote

As a field we can be justifiably proud to have discovered the physics that led to the transistor, NMR, superconducting electronics etc etc. But this boon has also been a curse. It has made us lazy and has stifled our capacity to think creatively about outreach in areas where we don’t have the crutch of technological promise to fall back on.

This is a luxury our cosmology colleagues don’t have. They feel passionately about their research and they have to (get to?) convey that passion to the public (with predictably good results). We feel passionately about our research, but then feel compelled to tell boring stories about this or that new technology we might develop (which predictably elicits yawns and perhaps only a mental note to take advantage of said technology when it is available in Ipod form). We do this because we are bred and raised to think that technological promise is a somehow more legitimate motivation to the outside public than genuine fundamental scientific interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Due to our tremendous technological successes there is also the feeling then that at some level ALL our work should touch on technology. This is the easy strategy, but ultimately it hasn’t been good for the health of the field. This is because, for many of us, technology isn’t our passion and it shows…..

The reality is that many of us in CMP don’t have the inclination or interest to ‘make’ anything at all. For instance, we may pursue novel states of matter at low temperature and consider the concept of emergence and the appearance of collective effects to be just as fundamental and irreducible as anything in string theory. We should promote what excites us in the manner that it excites us….

Meanwhile, I just got hold of a book from TIFR library titled “Constitutions of matter” by Martin.H.Krieger[Amazon][American Scientist Review] [Journal of Chemical Education Review]. It is really not a popular science book, but if you like the kind of mathematical physics that statistical mechanics throws up, you might like it.

[1] Some of my colleagues were of the same opinion. In fact, I opined that biology students might have got something about scaling whereas my colleagues were a bit more pessimistic.


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