Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Crisis? What Crisis?

Chad Orzel has posted a fun piece that really tries to clarified all the brouhaha in many circles about a "crisis" that many are presuming to be widespread. The crisis in question is the lack of "beyond the standard model" discovery in elementary particle physics, and the issue that many elementary particle theorists seem to think that a theory that is based on solid foundation and elegance are sufficient to be taken seriously.

I find this very frustrating, because physics as a whole is not in crisis. The "crisis" being described is real, but it affects only the subset of physics that deals with fundamental particles and fields, particularly on the theory side. (Experimental physicists in those areas aren't making dramatic discoveries, but they are generating data and pushing their experiments forward, so they're a little happier than their theoretical colleagues...)

The problems of theoretical high energy physics, though, do not greatly afflict physicists working in much of the rest of the discipline. While this might be a time of crisis for particle theorists, it's arguably never been a better time to be a physicist in most of the rest of the field. There are exciting discoveries being made, and new technologies pushing the frontiers of physics forward in a wide range of subfields.

This is a common frustration, because elementary particle physics is not even the biggest subfield of physics (condensed matter physics is), but yet, it makes a lot of noise, and the media+public seem to pay more attention to such noises. So whenever something rocks this field, people often tend to think that this permeates through the entire field of physics. This is utterly false!

Orzel has listed several outstanding and amazing discoveries and advancements in condensed matter. There are more! The study of topological insulators continues to be extremely hot and appear to be not only interesting for application, but also as a "playground" for exotic quantum field theory scenarios.

I've said it many times, and I'll say it again. Physics isn't just the Higgs or the LHC. It is also your iphone, your MRI, your WiFi, your CT scan, etc....etc.

Zz.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

150 Years of the Periodic Table

Hey, I'll admit it. I wouldn't have known about this 150th birthday of the periodic table if it weren't for this news article. ScienceNews has a lot more detail on the history and background of Mendeleev, who came up with the first periodic table.

Unfortunately, there might be a chance for a bit of inaccuracy here from the Miami Herald news article.

The periodic table lists the elements in order of their atomic weights, but when Mendeleev was classifying them, no one even knew what was inside these tiny things called atoms. 

While it is true that, historically, Mendeleev originally arranged the elements with respect to each atom's atomic weight (since no one knew that was inside these atoms at that time), the periodic table that we have now lists the elements in order of their atomic number, i.e. the number of protons in the element. This is because we now know that an element of a particular atomic number may have several different isotopes (atomic weights). So the atomic weight is not a unique number for an element, but atomic number is. That is why the period table is arrange in order of the element's atomic number.

In any case, Happy 150th Year, Periodic Table!

Zz.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Rumors Emerge Following Prominent Physicist's Death

First of all, RIP Shoucheng Zhang.

It is unfortunate that my first post of the New Year is about a sad news from Dec. of 2018. Prominent Standford physicist, Shoucheng Zhang passed away in early Dec. of an apparent suicide. He was only 55, and according to his family, has been suffering from bouts of depression. But what triggers this report is the possible connection between him and US-China relation, which, btw, is purely a rumor right now.

Zhang was originally recruited in 2008 under the Thousand Talents program — a CCP effort to attract top scientists from overseas to work in China — to conduct research at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Zhang was active in helping U.S.-trained Chinese researchers return home, and expressed his desire to help “bring back the front-lines of research to China” in a recent interview with Chinese news portal Sina.  

Zhang’s venture capital firm Digital Horizon Capital (DHVC), formerly known as Danhua Capital, was recently linked to China’s “Made in China 2025” technology dominance program in a Nov. 30 U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) report. According to the report, venture capital firms like DHVC are ultimately aimed at allowing China to access vital technology from U.S. startups. Zhang’s firm lists 113 U.S. companies in its portfolio, most falling within emerging sectors that the Chinese government has identified as strategic priorities. 

The “Made in China 2025” program combines economic espionage and aggressive business acquisitions to aid China’s quest to become a tech manufacturing superpower, the USTR report continues. The program was launched in 2015 and has been cited by the Trump administration as evidence that the Chinese government is engaged in a strategic effort to steal American technological expertise. 

I have absolutely no knowledge on any of these. I can only mourn the brilliant mind that we have lost.

I first heard of "S.C. Zhang" when I was still working as a grad student in condensed matter physics, especially on the high-Tc superconductors. He published this paper in Science, authored by him alone, on the SO5 symmetry for the basis of a unified theory of superconductivity and antiferromagntism[1]. That publication created quite a shakeup in condensed matter theory world at that time.

It was a bit later that I learned that he came out of an expertise in elementary particle physics, and switched fields to go dabble into condensed matter (see, kids? I told you that various topics in physics are connected and interrelated!). Of course, his latest ground-breaking work was the initial proposal for topological insulators[2]. This was Nobel Prize-caliber work, in my opinion.

Besides that, I've often cited one of his writings when the issue of emergent phenomena comes up.[3] As someone with a training in high energy/elementary particle, he definitely had the expertise to talk about both sides of the coin: reductionism versus emergent phenomenon.

Whatever the circumstances are surrounding his death, we have lost a brilliant physicist. If topological insulators become the rich playground for physicists and engineers in the years to come, as it is expected to, I hope the world remembers his name as someone who was responsible for this advancement.

Zz.

[1] S.C. Zhang, Science v.275, p.1089 (1997).
[2] H. Zhang et al., Nature Physics v.5, p.438 (2009).
[3] https://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0210162