Scientist Felix Flickr: “Compared to fighting kung fu in public, giving a physics lecture is not a problem” | Physics

FAlex Flickr is a theoretical physicist working on the quantum foundations of matter. Born in Devon, he studied at Oxford, the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, and the University of Bristol, where he completed his Ph.D. Now a lecturer in physics at Cardiff University, he is also a kung fu teacher and former British champion of Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling). Flickr, 35, has just published his first book, The Magic of Matter: Crystals, Chaos, and the Magic of Physicsto explore the often overlooked field of condensed matter physics, which underlies our modern world.

What prompted you to write this book?
Condensed matter physics is the largest field in physics—about a third of physicists work on it—but no one has ever heard of it. One reason is that it is the study of familiar things – states of matter and their transformations. It’s practical, too: it leads to most of the technology around us these days. Being practical and familiar seems to contrast with being magical. I wrote the book to address that.

You summon the wizards to shed light on the subject. But isn’t physics a rejection of magic?
I don’t think they are at all at odds. [The folklorist] James George Fraser said: “Magic, like science, presupposes the order and unification of nature. Hence the attraction of both magic and science, which opens limitless horizons for those who can penetrate the secret springs of nature.” His opinions may be quite old, but I think there is a lot of truth in that. Some people do not like science, or have been told from a young age that it is not for them, while everyone is interested in magic to some extent. By emphasizing this connection, I thought there might be a way for a broader group of people to become interested in science.

How did you get interested in science?
I don’t have a good answer for you, because I wanted to be a scientist as best I could remember. Really, I think they were the fancy words – like “photon” and “special relativity”. They work like magic words, in that they tell you something about the world but you don’t really know what. And there is this group of glorified people who know what it means and you just have to trust them. I found that quite reassuring.

Define condensed matter physics.
It is the study of matter – states of matter and how they transform between them. It is also trying to understand how the familiar world around us, which consists entirely of matter, comes from the contradictory and somewhat illogical world of quantum mechanics.

The book asks the question: “What’s up?” But it continues to give us different answers.
There is no right answer, but I’ll give it a try: Matter is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, when water is in the form of steam, you can think of it as individual water molecules, in general. But when it condenses into liquid and then ice, it is no longer individual particles, but rather clumps together to become something of its own, having properties not found in any of the individual particles. This is what I mean by the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

Physicist Wolfgang Pauli rejected condensed matter physics as “dirt physics”. I suppose he didn’t mean it in a nice way.
no he did not. Pauli was one of the developers of quantum mechanics, and in the early days they were trying to understand the world on the smallest scales – what rays of light are made of, what kind of things are. Long after that we started getting far enough with quantum mechanics that we could consider many different atoms and molecules interacting. This seems like an unmanageable task if you think that within one block of matter, you might have 1023 atoms. Pauli believed that this study of matter was far from the pure esoteric studies of physics at the time.

What was Pauli looking at? Or in other words: wWhy should we care about condensed matter physics?
In fact we care a lot about him. We wouldn’t have computers, phones, modern lighting, internet, and so much more without it. It is very much the basis of our entire world. And it’s building toward the future, too, and fundamental advances such as moving toward greener energy. But I think presence and practicality are the reason why we don’t tend to read books about it, because it’s hard to talk about the magic of everything around you.

What are some of the most exciting technologies emerging from condensed matter physics?
Single quantum computers. We are right on the cusp of these practical people. In fact we already have – you can use it IBM quantum computers online for free.

The modern philosopher’s stone, as you write, is a room-temperature superconductor…
This is perhaps the most pressing topic in condensed matter physics. Superconductors are one of the main methods of trying to make quantum computers. But also, it conducts electricity perfectly without any loss. If you build power lines from it, you will get rid of [loss] of energy as the electricity travels down the lines. It is not a false dream. Superconductors are beginning to be used to connect larger power grids to balance load across them.

felix flicker and his dog Jeffrey, at home in Bristol
Felix Flickr and his dog Jeffrey. Photography: Gareth Ewan Jones for the Observer

Would you call yourself a technical optimist, in terms of solving our way out of climate crisis?
No, I will not do it. I think we’re going to need technological advances, but the biggest problem is the way we think about things. If we get the technology to generate power at half the cost tomorrow, we will only use it twice. In condensed matter physics, you can’t think of things in isolation: you’re looking at collective behavior. And I think that’s true of how we think about the world. The idea that scientists are separate from the things they study goes hand in hand with the idea that the environment is this thing that we can only take without having an effect on it. But we clearly learn that this is not the case.

You have very diverse references in the book, from the ancient Taoist texts for action films in the 1990s. What do cultural references allow you to do besides entertain the reader?
When I was a master’s student, two women in my class were inspired to study physics by seeing Dana Scully in unknown filesHe is a supernaturally gifted scientist. It really stuck with me, the idea that a fictional model could inspire people to do it [science] Whereas they never did.

It ends by saying that anyone can be a wizard, and by that you mean a scientist in theoretical physicists – or a scientist more broadly.
This is really hope. There are still groups underrepresented in science. So the more people that can be excited about it, the more variety we’ll have in the long run, which is really important for the health of the topic. This lonely genius idea is extremely destructive and incorrect. The wider the set of backgrounds represented and ideas brought together, the faster we can make progress.

You practiceSe martial arts, including Prayer Kung Fu Mantis. Did physics teach your choice of martial arts? Does it make you a better martial artist in any way?
Perhaps, but more importantly, martial arts help me become a better physicist. They teach you inner discipline, which is how you can work long hours learning all the things you need to learn to become a scientist. Also, a friend once asked me how I can give public lectures on science because it’s not hard? It didn’t really strike me as scary because I had been practicing martial arts for a long time. Compared to someone else fighting with a ton of people watching, having a talk about physics isn’t a problem.

No one in the crowd will come out and yell at you.
exactly. I think: “What’s the worst-case scenario here?”

The Magic of Matter: Crystals, Chaos, and the Magic of Physics By Felix Flicker Posted by Profile (£20). to support guardian And the observer Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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