Thursday, March 8, 2012

Break On Through To the Other Side

I was reminded to share this page in light of some recent conversations elsewhere. I would also encourage interested readers to check out the rest of Prof. Sethna's web site - there's a whole lot of great material on numerous interesting topics in physics and "complex systems," as well as what seems to be a nice, modern introduction to statistical mechanics for a wider audience than for whom most texts are intended. (I've only skimmed over it here and there so far - your mileage may vary.) Disclaimer - I am not affiliated with the lab. In fact, my only affiliation with Cornell is that I once dated a girl who lived in Ithaca, and her father worked at the university. Heh.

I will say that many physicists I've known - at least publicly - aren't convinced that they are after finding 3 laws to explain 99% of the behavior in the known universe. Most have far less ambitious goals (like being able to explain superconductivity for non-BCS systems), although I suppose this is their PR problem - they clearly need more Philip Andersons and Robert Laughlins to champion what most physicists are actually interested in, and not just what the very prolific high energy theorists and astrophysicists are putting on the book shelves. Of course, it's not to say that there can't be some excellent synergy going on - there's plenty of fundamental physics going on at neutron sources worldwide, and many groups are interested in using the tools of AMO physics as increasingly powerful probes of fundamental physics.

We can all recount anecdotes from our personal experiences - I met a bio grad student who clearly thought of their project in terms of cartoon diagrams without a number or semi-quantitative thought in mind, the theoretical physicist who thought that explaining his ideas to the experimentalists (or anyone who wasn't actually a frustrated mathematician) was the role of the phenomenology folks, and the chemists who complain about lack of rigor yet still seem desperate to explain everything in terms a first-year chemistry student would recognize. What we should focus on is trying to understand what is useful in such diverse approaches and work from there.

Biophysical chemists such as myself do not suffer from such faults, as we have all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses. We're also very modest. :)


Wavefunction said...

I do think it's a PR problem. The popular physics literature has been hijacked by the Hawkings, Greenes and Kakus, largely relegating what I suspect is at least 90% of actual physics research to the sidelines. As an unfortunate side-effect this leads to people like John Horgan writing books on the "end of science" in which he neatly sidesteps lots of exciting areas of physics and declares that fundamental physics (which in his mind is the only important physics worth doing) is now over. Physicists don't admit it, but as you indicate, they need to accept that they have a PR problem of a different kind. I may have a post on this soon.

MJ said...

As has been noted by others, it's the American Physical Society's March meeting that typically has the highest attendance. This is typically where you will see the AMO, condensed matter, soft matter, and the non-high-energy folks. What most physicists do is not what most people think they're doing. And, as I've been occasionally fond of noting, there are still unresolved questions and perpetual problems in physics that have lingered with us over the decades, if not even longer. It's not just physics at the Planck scale - it's anything where you have many interacting components, in the end.

You can count on my interest in any such post, should you get around to writing it!

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