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While condensed matter physics is the largest subfield of physics, there still exist few popular science books on the topic. Condensed matter physicist Dr. Felix Flicker set out to change that. Flicker is currently a lecturer in physics at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. In conversation with Harvard physicist Dr. Norman Y. Yao ’09, Flicker visited the Harvard Science Center on March 10 to speak about “The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life,” his book on the subject.
Flicker bounded on stage with a lively smile, following a charming anecdotal introduction by Yao, who worked closely with him at UC Berkeley when Flicker was a postdoc. “A man of eclectic tastes,” according to Yao, Flicker exuded natural charisma and eccentric charm. Outside of physics and writing, Yao talked of how Flicker “has practiced kung fu for many years and taught kung fu at Berkeley.” In addition, “he was the British national champion of a Chinese style of wrestling known as shuai jiao … he taught sailing, he plays Mahjong, he plays bridge,” said Yao. “He’s really one of the most interesting people that I know.”
While Flicker’s academic research focuses on the application of geometry and topology to quantum materials, his book offers a broader overview of his scientific interests to appeal to an audience that may not have heard of condensed matter physics before. In the beginning of the talk, Flicker raises the question of why there are no mainstream science books about his field. Flicker believes this is the case because the physics subfields that dominate popular science — astrophysics, cosmology, and particle physics — are assumed to be more directly tied to wonder.
“People will agree that there’s something inherently magical about the stars,” said Flicker. Condensed matter physics, on the other hand, concerns the study of ordinary matter, which does not naturally lend itself towards “[the] unimaginably large and the unfathomably small.” Flicker explains that it is hard to unearth a sense of magic and inspiration from such a practical science.
Though what exactly does it mean for something to be magical? Flicker defines magic simply as “the ability of the world to inspire.” While the familiar nature of condensed matter physics does not immediately seem conducive to incomprehensible, mysterious, and wonderful, Flicker’s book aims to prove that this is not the case. Flicker argues that his field of study has the equal potential to inspire wonder: “It can be more subtle, but is just as present,” he says.
“The writing really came together when I had the idea to start the book with fiction rather than non-fiction,” Flicker said later in an email. “Rather than try to describe the magic condensed matter physicists see in their subject, using fiction allowed me to just show it, by presenting an obviously magical situation before switching to non-fiction and pointing out that this is magic we perform every day.”
Flicker thus reveals the magical nature of condensed matter physics by starting with the foundation of a fictional story: A wizard illuminates a dark cave with a magical crystal that Flicker later reveals to be a simple light-emitting diode (LED). The book then unfolds into a series of fantastical yet ultimately scientific scenarios. As described in the synopsis, the book is “full of owls and mountains and infinite libraries, and staffs and wands, and martial arts and mythical islands ruled by sage knot-makers.”
This creative approach helps reawaken a sense of curiosity to share scientific topics in an accessible way for both physicists and non-physicists alike.
“I thought [the talk] was great, because I learned what condensed-matter physics was, which I wondered about for about 35 years,” said Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard and organizer of the book talk.
Jeff Mayersohn, co-owner of the Harvard Book Store and fellow event organizer, also enjoyed the talk. “I loved it also because I learned what condensed-matter physics was,” said Meyerson, “but also I learned about this potentially very exciting development in the field of condensed matter physics which I thought they explained beautifully.”
The development in question was announced at the American Physical Society’s March meeting, the largest gathering of condensed matter physicists in the world. This new finding was the establishment of superconductivity under ambient conditions — essentially, a superconductor that exists at room temperature. Flicker and Yao discussed these latest developments in the field with both the ease of knowledgeable experts and the accessible manner of science communicators.
“For humanity, it’s monumental,” Flicker explained. “You can now pass electricity from one place to another without losing any at all.”
Indeed, the talk featured a discussion of many fascinating topics in condensed matter physics, and many of Yao’s questions were geared towards unpacking the science and non-fiction aspects of the book. Together, the two scientists discussed different kinds of physicists, the concept of a quasiparticle, and the importance of noise in condensed matter physics — all topics that Flicker illustrates through magic and wizardry in his book. Yao’s thoughtful and eloquent comments allowed Flicker to delve deeper into the physics of the talk.
The talk felt like an informal but highly articulate conversation between two friends and intellectual peers. Both physicists referred to each other fondly as “Norm” and “Felix,” and audience members could sense the joy of a reunion between friendly colleagues after many years.
The reception afterwards featured a book-signing and opportunities to speak with Flicker and Yao about the talk. “It is just super special to have people who can communicate science come and tell you about how they communicate science and why they were interested in writing a novel or a book,” said Yao.
Yao explained that he enjoyed getting to moderate such a talk after having attended these types of events as an undergraduate: “Now being able to be on the other side with a post-doc of mine was super special … It's a full circle feeling.”
“My main hope in writing the book was to recruit new people to condensed matter physics … from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible,” wrote Flicker in an email to The Crimson. “I hoped the fictional parts might help reach people who might not naturally read a popular science book, but who might find the links to magic and fantasy approachable.”
—Staff writer Arielle C. Frommer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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