Once in the 1980s as I was looking at a photo of a group of physicists, I realized that it was easy to tell the high energy physicists from the solid state ones. The latter were wearing neckties. The difference reflected their affiliations with the poles of academia or industry and perhaps even their personalities. Were these people really members of a single community? Could they stay that way? These are the questions answered by Martin's deeply researched and intriguing study of the evolving situation of solid state physics.
Martin rightly presents this evolution as central to the history of all modern physics. An “insurrection” by solid state physicists, challenging the dominant position of academic nuclear and high energy physicists, pulled applied physics as a whole from a peripheral to a central position, which meant reorganizing how the physics community allocated institutional power and prestige. This is social history, scarcely noticing developments in the actual science of physics: “Solid state,” Martin asserts, “was a political alliance rather than a conceptually unified community.” His book is a particular kind of social history, revolving around ideas, rhetoric, professional goals, and boundary-setting; it pays due attention to overarching economic and social forces without descending to gritty details of individual career choices or hiring fights. But if the book is thus lacking colorful incidents, its clear organization and lively writing style make it a good choice for any intelligent reader.
There are few surprises here for historians familiar with the specialized literature. What the book offers is a broad synthesis, rich in new details and nuanced analysis. Martin has read carefully through a wide variety of publications and archives and has even worked up some statistical studies, crafting the definitive work on its subject. His analysis is also valuable for the history of 20th-century science as a whole. As interdisciplinary collaborations multiplied and profit-motivated funding became predominant, the sort of conflicts this book describes should be visible in many fields.
A century ago the word “physicist” evoked an ivory-tower professor dedicated to “pure” science. Martin shows how the pure-science ideal began to break down in 1947 when a struggle within the American Physical Society resulted in the creation of its Division of Solid-State Physics. The plan originated among industrial specialists in metals who wanted to associate with both applied-science metallurgists and basic-science academics. The process they began culminated in today's physics community, stretching from visionary theorists to corporate labs. Martin suggests that it might have turned out otherwise, with an irrevocable separation of the occupational areas.
Taking up a less well-known case, Martin describes a significant debate over whether solid state physicists should publish in association with chemical physicists—and thus how far to welcome strictly applied research. Another case study addresses the pressures in the 1960s that forced the National Magnet Laboratory to dilute its original fundamental-science orientation with research related to specific technological applications. This was in painful contrast to high energy physics, which still found support as a cultural enterprise questing after fundamental knowledge.
Boundary-setting comes to the fore in a case study of the deliberate creation of “materials science” as a bridge between solid state physics and engineering, a process driven by military requirements. As semiconductor and similar technologies attracted funding and public admiration for their many applications, materials were gradually embraced as an area of “physics,” no matter how immediately practical the research goals might be. But once applied work was irrevocably embedded as an integral part of the physics community, it was possible to take a step back towards the old pure-science ideal: that was the effect of a still broader reorganization in the 1970s which replaced “solid state” with “condensed matter” physics.
The new self-confidence among application-oriented physicists brought out an old resentment of the grander budgets and prestige that high energy physicists still enjoyed. (Martin stresses funding, but prestige was no less vital in the eternal struggle to win the brightest students, professorship slots in a department, government advisory posts, and so forth.) The book concludes, inevitably, with the notorious debate over building the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). Martin argues that by 1990, high energy physics was barely sustained by a lingering Cold-War deference to nuclear science as a source of weaponry; more important was the way policy-makers and the public saw “physics” as a unit so that even abstruse fields benefited from the reflected glory of applied triumphs like solid state electronics. When the SSC project was killed, some of the blows were struck by solid state physicists. They argued, in effect, that knowledge of quarks was no more epistemologically or ontologically “fundamental” compared to knowledge of Brillouin zones (and a lot less useful). They also attacked “megascience” as a whole in favor of a proliferation of medium- and small-scale groups. The success of these arguments was another step in creating today's physics community—rightly called a community—as interconnected and variegated as a coral reef or a tropical forest.
What is physics? Historian Dan Kevles famously wrote, “Physics is what physicists do.” For Martin, that makes physicists a social category defined by the problems they can get funds to attack. But it might be better to say, “Physics is how physicists do.” Think of “Fermi problems” and the venerable joke ending, “consider a spherical cow.” A physicist may pry open a problem with adroit mathematics, as required for the old Cambridge Tripos examinations. The methodology extends to specialized mathematical toolkits, like the approximations for multi-body interactions that are used for everything from superconducting metals to neutron stars, forging bonds among workers in far-flung areas of condensed matter studies. A laboratory physicist is no less resourceful in another Cambridge tradition, “string and sealing wax.” This extends to specialized skill sets, like those for low temperatures or beams in vacuum which connect people who study problems of condensed matter whether in academia or industry. There is a manner of approaching the great puzzles of matter and energy which binds together all physicists, whether or not they wear a necktie and whether or not they wear a necklace.
Spencer Weart is the Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. His publications include The Discovery of Global Warming (rev. ed. 2008), The Rise of Nuclear Fear (2012), and, as co-author and co-editor, Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from the History of Solid State Physics (1992).