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Scientist Felix Flicker: ‘In contrast with a kung fu struggle in public, giving a chat on physics isn’t an issue’ | Physics

Felix Flicker is a theoretical physicist engaged on the quantum underpinnings of matter. Born in Devon, he studied at Oxford, the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, and Bristol College, the place he accomplished his PhD. Now a physics lecturer at Cardiff College, he’s additionally a kung fu instructor and former British champion of shuai jiao (Chinese language wrestling). Flicker, 35, has simply printed his first e book, The Magick of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Wizardry of Physics, exploring the usually neglected subject of condensed matter physics, which underlies our fashionable world.

What prompted you to put in writing this e book?
Condensed matter physics is the most important space in physics – a few third of all physicists work on it – however no one’s ever heard of it. One motive is as a result of it’s the examine of acquainted stuff – states of matter and their transformations. It’s additionally sensible: it results in many of the expertise round us lately. Being sensible and acquainted appears to be at odds with being magical. I wrote the e book to handle that.

You invoke wizards to forged mild on the topic. However isn’t physics a repudiation of magic?
I don’t suppose they’re at odds in any respect. [The folklorist] James George Frazer stated: “Magic like science postulates the order and uniformity of nature; therefore the attraction each of magic and of science, which open up a boundless vista to those that can penetrate to the key springs of nature.” His views could be fairly outdated, however I believe there’s plenty of fact in that. Some individuals don’t like science, or are informed from a younger age that it’s not for them, whereas everyone seems to be desirous about magic to some extent. By emphasising that connection, I assumed there may be a manner for a broader vary of individuals to grow to be desirous about science.

How did you get desirous about science?
I don’t have an excellent reply for you, as a result of I’ve wished to be a scientist for so long as I can keep in mind. Actually, I believe it was the flamboyant phrases – corresponding to “photon” and “particular relativity”. They function like magic phrases, in that they inform you one thing concerning the world however you don’t actually know what. And there’s this set of exalted individuals who do know what it means and also you simply need to belief them. I discovered that fairly reassuring.

Outline condensed matter physics.
It’s the examine of matter – of the states of matter and remodel between them. It’s additionally attempting to grasp how the acquainted world round us, which is fully composed of matter, comes about from the moderately paradoxical and counterintuitive world of quantum mechanics.

The e book raises the query: “What’s matter?” however retains giving us completely different solutions.
There’s no proper reply, however I’ll give it a go: matter is the entire that’s greater than the sum of its components. For instance, when water is in vapour type, you possibly can consider it as particular person water molecules, by and huge. However when it condenses into liquid type after which ice, it’s not particular person molecules, it’s clumped collectively to grow to be its personal factor, and it has properties that aren’t current in any of the person molecules. That’s what I imply by the entire being greater than the sum of the components.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli dismissed condensed matter physics as “the physics of filth”. I assume he didn’t imply it in a pleasant manner.
No he didn’t. Pauli was one of many builders of quantum mechanics, and within the early days they had been attempting to grasp the world on the smallest scales – what are beams of sunshine manufactured from, and that kind of factor. It was a lot afterward that we began to be superior sufficient with quantum mechanics that we may contemplate many alternative atoms and molecules interacting. That looks as if an unmanageable job in case you suppose that, inside a single lump of stuff, you may need 1,023 atoms. Pauli considered this examine of matter as additional away from the pure, esoteric research of physics on the time.

What was Pauli overlooking? Or to place it one other manner: why ought to we care about condensed matter physics?
Really we do care about it loads. We wouldn’t have computer systems, telephones, fashionable lighting, the web and a lot extra with out it. It underlies just about our whole world. And it’s constructing in direction of the long run as effectively, underlying advances such because the transfer in direction of greener power. However I believe that ubiquity and practicality are why we have a tendency to not learn books about it, as a result of it’s exhausting to speak concerning the magic of all the things round you.

What are a few of the most fun applied sciences rising from condensed matter physics?
Quantum computer systems is one. We’re proper on the cusp of these being sensible. Actually we have already got them – you need to use IBM’s quantum computers for free online.

The trendy thinker’s stone, you write, is the room-temperature superconductor…
That’s in all probability essentially the most urgent subject in condensed matter physics. Superconductors are one of many predominant routes to attempting to make quantum computer systems. But in addition, they conduct electrical energy completely with no loss. If you happen to constructed energy traces out of them, you’ll get rid of the [loss] of power as electrical energy travels down the traces. It isn’t a complete pipe dream. Superconductors are beginning to be employed to attach up greater energy networks to steadiness the load throughout them.

felix flicker and his dog geoffrey, at home in bristol
Felix Flicker and his canine, Geoffrey. {Photograph}: Gareth Iwan Jones for the Observer

Would you name your self a techno-optimist, when it comes to fixing our manner out of the local weather disaster?
No I wouldn’t. I believe we are going to want technological advances, however the a lot greater drawback is the best way we take into consideration issues. If we bought the expertise to generate power at half the price tomorrow, we might simply use twice as a lot. In condensed matter physics, you possibly can’t consider issues in isolation: you’re collective behaviour. And I believe that’s true of how we want to consider the world. The concept that scientists are separate from the stuff they’re finding out goes hand in hand with the concept the atmosphere is that this factor that we are able to simply take from with out having an impact on it. However we’re studying very clearly that that’s not the case.

You will have wildly numerous references within the e book, from historical Taoist texts to Nineties motion films. What do cultural references help you do moreover entertain the reader?
After I was a grasp’s scholar, two of the ladies in my class had been impressed to review physics by seeing Dana Scully in The X-Recordsdata, who’s a supernaturally gifted scientist. That actually caught with me, the concept a fictional function mannequin can encourage individuals to do [science] once they would possibly in any other case by no means have performed it.

You finish by saying that anyone could be a wizard, by which you imply theoretical physicist – or scientist extra broadly.
That’s actually the hope. There are nonetheless underrepresented teams in science. So the extra individuals that may be enthused about it, the better variety we’ll obtain long run, which is de facto vital to the well being of the topic. This concept of a lone genius may be very damaging and incorrect. The broader a set of backgrounds which can be represented and convey concepts collectively, the quicker we’ll make advances.

You practise martial arts, together with praying mantis kung fu. Did physics inform your alternative of martial artwork? Does it make you a greater martial artist in any manner?
Maybe, nevertheless it’s extra that martial arts assist me be a greater physicist. They educate you inside self-discipline, which is the way you’re capable of work lengthy hours to study all of the stuff it’s good to study to be a scientist. Additionally, a buddy requested me as soon as how I can provide public talks about science as a result of isn’t it daunting? It by no means actually struck me as daunting as a result of I’ve been doing martial arts for a very long time. In contrast with combating one other individual with a load of individuals watching, giving a speak about physics will not be an issue.

No person’s going to return out of the viewers and wallop you.
Precisely. I believe: “What’s the worst case state of affairs right here?”

The Magick of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Wizardry of Physics by Felix Flicker is printed by Profile (£20). To assist the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees might apply

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