Why Does Particle Astrophysics Dominate Pop Science?
Are other fields insufficiently wondrous?
Over on Twitter, Doug Natelson (an experimental condensed matter physicist at Rice) posed one of the perennial questions of low-energy physics:
He expanded on that a little in the link that he tweeted, which I’ll quote from because nobody clicks two links these days:
[A colleague of Natelson’s] made a case that condensed matter is inherently less wondrous to the typical science-interested person than, e.g., "the God Particle" (blech) or black holes. This is basically my first point in the old post linked above. He was arguing that people have a hard time ever seeing something that captures the imagination in items or objects that they have around them all the time. The smartphone is an incredible piece of technology and physics, but what people care about is how to get better download speeds, not how or why any of it works.
The background here is that popular physics writing is absolutely dominated by particle astrophysics and cosmology. There’s no end of bestselling books about black holes and string theory, but as you move away from science done with big telescopes and particle accelerators, the sales numbers decrease dramatically, and as a result the pickings get much more slim.
This is obviously a question I have an intense personal interest in, given that I write books in this space, with Breakfast With Einstein being the most immediately relevant. The goal of that book is very explicitly to try to bring a sense of wonder to everyday activities and objects, and it includes a fair bit of condensed matter physics (I spent weeks working out a pop-level explanation of permanent magnets). I hasten to add that there are some other very good books in this same vein—off the top of my head, Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, The Physics of Everyday Things by Jim Kakalios, and (somewhat to my surprise) The Physics of NASCAR by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky are all books I recommend for talking about the deep physics underlying ordinary materials.
Those are all reasonably successful books, but I doubt that all their sales together would add up to one of Brian Greene’s books on string theory. Which is frustrating to a lot of physicists and physics writers, because this kind of practical physics is way more important to modern life than string theory (for one thing, it actually makes precise and testable predictions…). And there are many more professional physicists working in condensed matter than there are particle physicists or string theorists.
So what’s going on here? Why are these relatively small and arcane subfield so dominant in the pop-science area? I don’t have a great single answer for this, but I’ll throw out some ideas of factors that contribute (many echoing things said in the discussion following Natelson’s tweet and the comments of his blog post).
The first and most closely related to the “wonder” factor that Natelson’s colleague mentioned is that particle astrophysics is mathematically back-loaded. By this I mean something that’s brought up in the comments: while particle astrophysics and condensed matter are both intensely mathematical— in fact, both of them make use of a lot of the same techniques, and theorists slide between them with relative ease— the big ideas of particle astrophysics are much easier to pitch to a layperson. You can lay out the concept of the Standard Model (“Everything in the universe is made out of twelve particles and four forces”) in a way that seems clear and obvious, and only smack people in the face with tensor calculus later on. Condensed matter, on the other hand, requires a good deal of mathematical apparatus up front, to understand why the elegant techniques employed to make sense of it are necessary, and to really appreciate their elegance.
In a lot of ways, condensed matter physics faces the same problem as chemistry, in that the learning curve is really steep at the beginning. The chemical concept of bonds forming due based on electron-shell occupation is really easy to grasp, but it almost immediately gets incredibly complicated because there are dozens of elements that are relevant for practical chemistry, and they can combine in a dizzying array of different ways. The level of technical vocabulary needed to make sense of a sophomore chem major’s summer research project is intimidating enough that my eyes glaze over, and I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics.
Similarly, you can get the basic concept of electron bands across relatively easily, but then the complexity explodes for more or less the same reason as in chemistry: there are dozens of relevant elements and tons of different crystal structures that determine the actual properties of materials. (And the less said about glasses and amorphous solids, the better…) The vocabulary needed to make sense of it piles up real fast, and that turns people off.
To phrase it a little more cynically, it’s much easier to give a layperson a superficial understanding of particle astrophysics than it is to give an analogously superficial understanding of condensed matter physics.
A second factor that I bang on a lot because I think it’s underrated in considering these things is that the way the condensed matter physics is structured is less conducive to developing communicators. Particularly within academia, condensed matter physics is mostly done in small labs and theory groups, with single PIs who have to be more hands-on with a lot of time-consuming tasks: writing grants and reports, editing papers and theses, managing personnel and resources. There’s a similar dynamic in my own home field of AMO (atomic, molecular, and optical) physics— running everything yourself doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.
In contrast, a lot of particle astrophysics is done in Big Science mode, with larger collaboration that allow a bit more specialization. Things like the writing of grants and reports and papers are more centralized, and that allows a certain amount of off-loading of drudgery. That, in turn, makes it a little easier to pick people out for tasks that play to their strengths— in a larger collaboration, you’re more likely to be able to find someone with a flair for popular writing, and can more easily delegate them to do more of that.
(Closely related to this is “Why are there so many particle physicists and astronomers on Twitter?” I think a big part of the answer has to do with how research is done in those fields: experimental particle physics and observational astronomy these days involve a huge amount of sitting in front of computers writing and running analysis code. It’s really easy to switch back and forth between actual research activity and the bird app— they don’t even need to get out of their chairs. Low-energy experimentalists, on the other hand, are often doing their work in an entirely different place than the office where their computer is located, making it harder to dash off a quick tweet.)
Finally, I think a big piece of this is that publishing is self-reinforcing. Depending on what you think of the business as a whole, this could be cast as either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle. Past best-sellers in particle astrophysics make it more likely for additional books in that field to be bought and printed, and familiarity with the genre makes it easier for editors (and readers) to work with the next books, which leads to more successful books, and yet more books on the topic, and so on. You see the same thing with news reports, as I complained back when the 2021 Nobel was announced: given the choice, reporters will always write about a subject that’s familiar, just because it’s easier. (I did a post at Forbes about the spin glass aspect that I’m fairly proud of as a pop explanation of a condensed-matter topic, but as I suspected, there was precious little of that in major media, with the vast majority of the stories just talking about global warming.)
To wax a little cynical again, reporters, editors, and a good part of the reading public are already primed with a superficial understanding of particle astrophysics, simply because there have already been so many books and stories about it. That makes the next book about particle astrophysics easier to buy and consume. Condensed matter, on the other hand, doesn’t have that same built-in user base, which makes even superficial treatments a hard sell, let alone anything that tries to go into significant depth.
Put all those together, and I think it’s an uphill climb for popular treatments of condensed matter and other low-energy fields: they’re inherently harder to explain, it’s structurally harder to cultivate talent, and it’s harder to sell the resulting products. (But, you know, on the bright side, jobs and funding are a little easier to come by in cond-mat…) There are people out there fighting the good fight (I try to be one of them), but it’s hard, slow work.
I’ve been meaning to write more science-adjacent stuff here; this is a start on that, and as we pass through the publicity cycle for A Brief History of Timekeeping (out two weeks from yesterday!), and that stops consuming so much effort, there will be more. If that’s appealing, here are some buttons:
And if you want to share your own theories, or just complain about mine, the comments will be open.