Popularize this !

In one of his latest posts, Doug Natelson brings up a thorny issue for condensed matter physicists, namely: what makes it so difficult to render palatable to the general public this area of research, which so many of us find not only scientifically compelling and intellectually fascinating, but also genuinely fun ?
Why is it that it is far more common for someone with no physics or science background, to have at least heard about string theory, the Hubble space telescope, the human genome project or global warming, than it is for that person to have some vague idea of, say, what a superconductor is, or why a solid melts as the temperature is raised, or even what holds atoms and molecules together to make a solid ?

Is it because the Condensed Matter Physics (CMP) community has not yet found an effective spokesperson, a talented writer capable of generating enthusiasm for the field among non-specialists, much like Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould or John Kenneth Galbraith did so successfully for cosmology, biology or economics ? Or, is the cause-effect relationship reversed, namely, the lack of a CMP counterpart to Brian Greene, is due to an inherent “lack of general appeal” of CMP, so to speak ?
As many in our field do, Doug seems to lean toward the latter explanation. He correctly points out the direct connection between CMP and everyday life, which would suggest that people ought to find it interesting and worthwhile, much like they find interesting economics or meteorology — heck, we all have to deal with weather, right ? And even from a more abstract standpoint, how can anyone scientifically inclined not be impressed with its richness, subtlety, and the astonishing variety of physical systems and phenomena that it encompasses ?

Yet, CMP seems to fall through the cracks. Somehow, there seems to be something terribly mundane about it. What might be conceivably its best asset, namely its practical relevance, the technological advances that it affords (often capable of transforming society radically), turns out to be one of CMP’s worst liabilities.
Let us face it, we do not really care how a transistor works, we just bitch and moan if new computers are not as fast as we expected, or if progress with hydrogen technology is too slow. After all, that is just stuff — biology and economics deal with people, of course they are always going to be more interesting… are they not ?
And despite its unquestionable fundamental appeal, CMP comes across as lacking an element of “profundity”. The human mind is naturally drawn toward what lies at the root of it all, the ultimate, basic building block.
By its very nature, CMP studies messy stuff, large assemblies of particles, which behave in different ways depending on a host of different variables, such as temperature, pressure, magnetic field, etc. Its complexity is more often than not seen as a complicationschmutz physik (the physics of dirt), as Wolfgang Pauli was fond of referring to CMP as. It scarcely seems the venue where issues such as “where does this all come from ?” can be addressed, which are instead so germane to cosmology.
I myself have found the above line or argument plausible and compelling for a long time, but of late I am beginning to wonder whether maybe it is a bit simplistic. Is it really all that there is to this issue ? Is CMP destined to remain relegated to the role of “useful, if boring” field of inquiry ? I still think that if we did a better job at narrating what we do, things might be different. And I am not saying that it is easy, much less that I know how to do it — but we should be trying much harder.

Condensed Matter Physics ? Yawn…
First of all: Astrophysics is a special case. We are all fascinated with space, stars, planets, it is possibly the first kind of science that attracts our attention as kids. But, is it really true that CMP is less popular among the general public than, say, biophysics, or atomic physics, or particle physics, or any other branch of physics ? That is not clear to me, and I have never seen data to support such contention.
In my opinion, the real distinction is between cosmology, especially in its currently most fashionable form (string theory), and everything else, and it has much more to do with string theory itself than with CMP [0].
The prejudice that CMP would be “less fundamental” than particle physics or cosmology, may still be popular among physicists themselves (as Doug nicely puts it here), but I do not believe that fans of TV science show Nova who were mesmerized by The Elegant Universe, massively switched channel or fell asleep watching the awesome Absolute Zero [1].
In fact, I would be really curious to know how well (or poorly) shows such as Race for superconductors (1988), or Confusion in a Jar (1991) fared, compared to others on different subjects in other areas of physics, or even science in general.

The funny thing about ‘em strings…
It is interesting to note that one criticism that has often been levied against some of the most famous “popularizers” of science, has been that, rather than rigorous content, they feed the public something suitable for mass consumption (based on their own individual definition thereof) [2]. Typically, such a product is stripped down of … just about everything that makes it interesting to scientists. Only scant descriptions are given of the experiments, and hardly any of the underlying theories, which need be formulated in the abstruse language of math; at the expense of accuracy, all of that is replaced by qualitative (read: simple-minded) arguments, misleading analogies, wild extrapolations of concepts to realms where they do not belong, all in an attempt to make fiction out of something that can be observed in actuality.
Whether that happens because the popularizers themselves are failed scientists, not really knowledgeable of the subject that they are trying to popularize, or whether at fault are mostly incompetent science reporters, editors and TV producers with their own pre-conceived notion of how to make a “sellable product” out of scientific research, the end result is that of confusing and spreading disinformation, rather than educating (in turn conveniently offering quacks of all sorts the very fertile soil in which nonsense such as “quantum healing” flourishes).

String theorists are at a clear advantage here. Their task is greatly simplified by the substantial lack of actual science, at least at this time; hence, they need not worry about preserving the integrity of of is being presented. They have no experiment to describe, either already carried out, planned or even possible, nor any credible, unified and coherent theoretical framework, accepted by the majority of practitioners, capable of making actual quantitative predictions. Thus, not only do they enjoy the luxury of focusing on the deep, fundamental questions to which their theory is supposed to provide answers — brushing aside the obvious fact that not even an attempt at an answer exists at the moment. They are given free range to speculate, make up all sort of jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, fascinating (if scarcely believable) scenarios. It is impossible to compete with this kind of story-telling, not only for condensed matter physicists bur for any other kind of scientist, or for that matter anyone who is bound by adherence to observable facts. But in this case one is, in my opinion, legitimately entitled to ask whether it is really science that is being popularized.

As for CMP or any other branch of physics, I am sure that there is material drawn from CMP, with which one could put together documentaries, or lectures for the general public, and keep people entertained. Paradoxically, what makes this task challenging is that, unlike for strings, there are actual experiments that have been carried out, theories that have been disproven, scientific accomplishments to report, advances of knowledge to describe. It surely is no trivial task, but as long as no one tries, success will be difficult.


[0] The effectiveness of string theory’s propaganda machine among the general public can likely be appreciated by most laypersons. Less well known, and in my opinion equally interesting, is the process by which the string theory community has managed to take over de facto the whole field of particle physics. A useful read is Peter Woit’s blog, as well as his book, and Lee Smolin’s book.

[1] My wife, who is not a physicist, certainly did not. She liked Absolute Zero much better than The Elegant Universe. Lest anyone think that this may have something to do with somebody hypothetically, watching the shows with her, rolling his eyes or shouting something like (for the sake of argument) “Give me a break !… Yeah, right, AS IF… Oh, that’s such a crock… What the hell is this guy talking about….” during the latter, I shall let you know that she is not easily influenced by what that (purely hypothetical) person says.

[2] Nobel laureate Paul Krugman puts it much more bluntly than me in this lecture.

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9 Responses to “Popularize this !”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    You’re back! I was beginning to think you’d fallen off the edge of the planet.

    I think the key is to make it look like science fiction: the more fantastical, the better. I’ve written before on how all the hype surrounding metamaterials makes me insane, but it seems to be extremely effective. Every couple months, something new about how we’re closer to Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak shows up in the news, and it’s always about some result in metamaterials. It almost never emphasize what would really be necessary for such a device.

    So if you come up with some wildly fantastic thing from way off in the future and connect it to what you’re doing, then the general population will think it’s cool while the other scientists smirk at you. If you emphasize how practical or applicable this is, the scientists will sit up and take notice while the general public yawns.

    • Massimo Says:

      Oh, come on, now, if I’d fallen off the edge of the planet I’d blogging from some other dimension ! Someone needs to take string theory 101, here…

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        Most planets are oblate spheroids and therefore lack edges, as well…and there’s that whole gravity issue to contend with.

        Let me amend that to say I meant technological planet, where you can blog from anywhere, even the clouds.

        Actually, I did take a class in string theory. I dropped part way through the course because that’s when I realized I needed to quit taking classes that were very focused on mathematical abstraction and get to work on my degree. :-)

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Love, love, love the dig at string theory! You are so right that it’s hard to misrepresent something when nothing is known about it!

    I’d just like to correct one thing though:

    “We are all fascinated with space, stars, planets, it is possibly the first kind of science that attracts our attention as kids.”

    Maybe for physicists. We biologists tend to get our start via dinosaurs :)

    BTW, condensed matter theory is being used over here (by a Nobel Laureate, no less!) to defend homeopathy. I didn’t understand half of what was said in that thread, but thought you might be interested!

  3. GMP Says:

    Very nice post, Massimo.

    My son told me how he wanted to be a “real scientist,” in “…an important science, like to cure cancer…” and not a scientist like me who “…works on quantum mechanics.”

    I think there are ways to popularize CMP, but probably different ways for different subfields. For instance, graphene, with its linear electronic dispersion, is a prime sexy example where you can harness people’s intoxication with the theory of relativity to draw them into solid state.

    Wave nature of electrons as manifested in mesoscopic structures — I have seen many laypeope respond with awe at the prospect of particles behaving as waves, with double slit and interference patterns, etc.

    The problem with CMP is that it is humongous — too many subfields, most very active. (PRB has 4 monthly issues, other PR’s only one.)
    But I would not underestimate the appeal of gadgets to people’s imagination — especially with artificial retinas, flexible electronics and other Mission Impossible paraphernalia that are becoming a reality.

  4. Betelgeuse Says:

    Well, if you can make it to KITP one day, you can take Polchinski’s opinion on that. Many people(including physicists) do not even know that string (theory) conjecture is formulated on flat space time, so it does not even recover Einstein’s field equations which agree with experiments. The possibility that extra spatial dimensions may exist is not string theorists’ original idea either. It dates back to Kaluza-Klein theory in 1920′s. Therefore, what is compelling about strings? Well, they address a very fundamental question. Is there a theory of everything? If the answer can be shown to be yes, they will argue that there is no god.

  5. ScientistMother Says:

    Uhm, what is string theory? Is that part of the physics where it was suggested that gravity doesn’t really exist? I was confused about that.

    I got my love of science by being fascinated by the human body. I know I’m a geek….

    and where have you been?

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