I had planned to spend some time this weekend trying to make sense of this new result on topological insulators, and maybe even write up the relevant paper for ResearchBlogging. Family life intervened, though, and I didn’t have the time. I get enough of it to understand the basics of what’s going on, but there’s a whole lot I don’t understand about topological insulators generally, so I’d need to do a bunch of reference chasing to get to something I can understand well enough to work back up to this week’s Nature paper.
And, to put it bluntly, there just isn’t that much reward for the work that would be required. While this is one of the hottest topics in condensed matter physics at the moment, very few people outside that area of physics care. And very few of the people who care read blogs (at least based on my impression of post traffic and comments). So while I feel like I ought to understand this field more, and reading up on this would be a good way to do it, in the end most of that work would feel wasted– I’d spend hours writing a blog post that nobody would read or comment on.
So, this article is likely to end up on the big pile of stuff I ought to read and write up, but won’t ever get to. Because this problem isn’t specific to topological insulators– it’s a very general problem in physics outreach. If I write even half-assed stuff about particle physics or cosmology, people are all over that, but posts about my own field of AMO physics or condensed matter physics generally go nowhere. The same is true with regard to popular physics in general– there are shelves full of books about arcana of particle physics and cosmology, but if you look for books that deal with lower-energy physics, most of what you find are textbooks. And good luck finding condensed matter physics on the Science Channel.
It’s a vexing problem, particularly since research into topological insulators is vastly more likely to lead to useful, real-world applications than anything the LHC will ever observe. Which is not necessarily a statement about the technological relevance of topological insulators, but more a statement about the extreme irrelevance of particle physics. Yes, there’s the warm fuzzy philosophical satisfaction of (potentially) knowing where the observable universe came from, but that and a dollar still won’t get you a cup of coffee these days.
Some of the problem is just the usual fear of math. Condensed matter physics is a highly mathematical subject, and requires a great deal of apparatus to understand it. For good reason– you’re dealing with absurdly large numbers of particles in any macroscopic sample of material, and there’s no way to explain what’s going on in terms of individual particle trajectories. The action is all in collective effects and statistical approximations, and the language used to talk about it is highly abstract.
But then, it’s not like string theory is algebra-based physics, and Brain Greene has sold a bazillion books. Some of the complex math is very similar– both theoretical particle physics and condensed matter physics make a lot of use of symmetry transformations and the like. It ought to be possible to construct explanations for these systems that could work at the same level as the pop-level explanations of particle theory. Those don’t seem to exist, though, both because nobody seems to write them, and because nobody wants to buy them.
I suppose there’s enough money in condensed matter– due to the many applications in industry– that they don’t feel that much need to do popular outreach. Less immediately relevant but more expensive fields need to rely on capturing the public imagination to ensure funding for their big projects, but fields that tie directly into industrial application can take a more relaxed approach.
But it’s kind of maddening, from the perspective of someone who isn’t a particle physicist or cosmologist, to see the ridiculously inaccurate view of physics presented to and held by the general public. The majority of the work done in physics is done on real systems involving stable particles, but you’d never know that from looking at the tv or the shelves in your local Barnes & Noble.
I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to make people care about the physics the most physicists actually study, though.