Saturday, September 12, 2009

Is Physics iPods, or the LHC?

This is the question posted by Prof. Bill Wakeham in his piece on the Times Online.

There are two dramatically different perceptions of physics and thoughts on the way it should be presented to those who can ensure the subject’s future health - whether it’s to schoolchildren, their parents or politicians. One stems from the desire to spread the good news of physics; a cutting-edge discipline that underpins nearly all of our scientific advances in medicine, energy security, climate change and gadgetry. If you want to succeed in the world, whether it’s financially or as a world-changing scientist, physics is a sterling choice for A-level and degree-level studies.

On the other side, there is the purist’s view of physics. Physics is about the big questions – what is the origin of our universe, what are dark matter and dark energy, how many dimensions are there – and, to the purist, ‘leakage’ into what is, arguably, more socially useful sub-disciplines of physics is a cause for concern. Physics is the pursuit of pure and fundamental knowledge.

While the good news of physics is spreading and the number of young scientists staying on to do physics at A-level is moving up again, no one’s quite sure which of the two messages is having the biggest impact.

I really don't know if we have to choose between one or the other. Why does it have to be either or? Why can't we sell physics using BOTH? The very fact that this field can be both esoteric and practical at the same time is a big plus! How many other fields can boast such ability?

I would even go further and argue that for many young and incoming students, especially first year students at universities, the esoteric part of physics seems to be the one that gets the most publicity and devotion. This is reflected in a large part of the public that is ignorant about the application side of physics and why their modern electronics own their existence to the work of physicists. But even beyond that, there is a major missing piece of information that hasn't been effectively brought out - that the study of the physics that gives us the iPod can, in fact, be FUNDAMENTAL! The physics that was studied by Phil Anderson, Bob Laughlin, etc. has added to the fundamental body of knowledge in physics. No other system provides as clear of an evidence for the workings of quantum field theory than condensed matter systems. One only needs to look at the origin of the Higgs mechanism, or the origin of spontaneous broken symmetry, and that's that. The physics of iPods helps you understand the quarks!

So while physics has its "basic knowledge for the sake of knowledge" side and its "applied" side, there's plenty of examples in which both of these are the SAME thing. It is why one needs to present physics as being both, at the same time, in superposition with each other, even after an observation is made!


1 comment:

Joseph Smidt said...

Two things:

1. Physics should be both.

2. The general public needs to be convinced physics is practical, not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, otherwise there won't be as much public support.

I think physicists need both things, but really convince the public how practical and useful the subject is.