The silence of condensed matter physics
Posted by Melissa on December 30, 2008
This is a brief (and somewhat belated) post to draw attention to Marvin Cohen’s essay in Physical Review Letters earlier this month highlighting what’s interesting about condensed matter physics. He notes, “This field is now the largest branch of physics, yet it is probably fair to say that its practitioners can be viewed as the silent majority.”
I’m occasionally taken aback by the lack of public knowledge about my chosen subfield of physics, underscored by a friend’s remark years ago, “You must work on really obscure physics because I’ve never seen a NOVA show on that.” Contrary to being obscure, condensed matter physics probably has more practical impact on how we live than any other subfield of physics—from alternative energy technologies to data storage and processing to medical technologies. Yet, in addition to the shear practicality, there are also many alluring basic physics questions to be answered by condensed matter physicists.
Once in a while, students ask me how I became interested in condensed matter physics, and the strange thing is that I don’t know how it happened. Ask me how I became interested in physics in general and I can give you a detailed timeline of activities and events that led to my growing interest in physics, but how my interest in condensed matter came about is a complete blank. Perhaps the reason I don’t remember consciously falling for condensed matter physics is because the things that drew me to physics in the first place—the immense diversity, the ubiquitous connections to other fields, and the ability to address a spectrum of questions from fundamental to applied—are the same things that attracted me to condensed matter physics as well.