Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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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.

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4 Responses to “The silence of condensed matter physics”

  1. rob said

    yeah, i am in condensed matter physics. did grad work on STM studies of CVD on Si(001). now am working on MBE of II-IV semiconductors. lots of people have no idea how dependent the world is on condensed matter physics. the transistor is ubiquitous. even LEDs are becoming common place.

    but, NOVA does have at one special on condensed matter. recently i watched a special about the history of cold/temperature. they covered all the big developments and people leading to temperatures approaching absolute zero.

  2. Alex said

    On the one hand, we’re always told that we need to make people see what physics is good for. But the only fields that attract public attention are the least practical ones: Particle physics, astrophysics, and string theory. Yes, yes, there are practical spin-offs from particle physics and astrophysics, nuclear physics has important uses, and there are even condensed matter theorists borrowing techniques from string theory. Be that as it may, the comparatively more practical fields get the least attention. Indeed, once or twice non-scientists have told me that I have no sense of intellectual excitement if I’m spending all my time thinking about cells and microscopes (I do optics and biophysics) instead of The Big Questions about string theory, curved space time, black holes, etc.

  3. […] by Melissa on January 18, 2011 As I’ve noted before, condensed matter physics, despite being the largest subfield of physics, is often overlooked by […]

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