Felix Flicker 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 obtained his doctorate. Now a professor of physics at Cardiff University, he is also a kung fu teacher and a former British champion in shuai jiao (Chinese wrestling). Flicker, 35, has just published his first book, The Magic of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Magic of Physicsexploring the often overlooked field of condensed matter physics, which underpins our modern world.
What prompted you to write this book?
Condensed matter physics is the most important area of physics – about a third of all physicists work in it – but no one has ever heard of it. One of the reasons is that it is the study of familiar things – the states of matter and their transformations. It’s also practical: it leads to most of the technology around us these days. Being practical and familiar seems to be at odds with being magical. I wrote the book to answer that.
You summon helpers to shed light on the matter. But isn’t physics a repudiation of magic?
I don’t think they disagree at all. [The folklorist] James George Frazer said: “Magic like science postulates the order and uniformity of nature; hence the attraction of both magic and science, which open an unlimited view to those who can penetrate to the secret sources of nature. His opinions may be pretty dated, but I think there’s a lot of truth in there. Some people don’t like science or are told from an early age that it’s not for them, when everyone is interested in magic to some degree. By emphasizing this connection, I thought there might be a way for a wider range 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’ve always wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. Really, I think it was fancy words – such as “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 exalted people who know what that means and you just have to trust them. I found that rather reassuring.
Define condensed matter physics.
It is the study of matter – states of matter and how to transform between them. It is also trying to understand how the familiar world around us, entirely composed of matter, comes from the rather paradoxical and counter-intuitive world of quantum mechanics.
The book asks the question: “What is matter?” but keeps giving us different answers.
There is no right answer, but I will try: matter is the whole that is more than the sum of its parts. For example, when water is in the form of vapor, you can think of it as individual water molecules, as a whole. But when it condenses into liquid form and then into ice, it’s no longer individual molecules, it clumps together to become its own thing, and it has properties that aren’t present in any of the individual molecules. That’s what I mean by the whole being more than the sum of the parts.
When I was a master’s student, two of the women in my class were inspired to study physics by seeing Dana Scully in The X-Files.
Physicist Wolfgang Pauli called condensed matter physics “dirt physics”. I guess he didn’t say it in a nice way.
No, he didn’t. Pauli was one of the developers of quantum mechanics, and in the beginning they were trying to figure out the world on the smallest scale – what are beams of light made of, and that sort of thing. It was much later that we began to be sufficiently advanced in quantum mechanics to be able to envisage the interaction of many different atoms and molecules. It seems like an unmanageable task if you think that inside a single piece of matter you might have 1,023 atoms. Pauli considered this study of matter to be further removed from the pure, esoteric studies of physics at the time.
What was Pauli overlooking? Or to put it another way: wWhy should we care about condensed matter physics?
In fact, we care a lot. We wouldn’t have computers, telephones, modern lighting, the Internet and much more without it. It underlies just about everyone in our world. And it also prepares for the future, underpinning advances such as the move towards greener energy. But I think ubiquity and practicality is why we tend not to read books about it, because it’s hard to talk about the magic of everything around us.
What are some of the most interesting technologies to come out of condensed matter physics?
Quantum computers are one of them. We are about to get practical. In fact, we already have them – you can use IBM’s quantum computers for free online.
The modern philosopher’s stone, you write, is the room temperature superconductor…
This is probably the most pressing topic in condensed matter physics. Superconductors are one of the main ways to try to make quantum computers. But also, they perfectly conduct electricity without loss. If you built power lines out of them, you would eliminate the [loss] of energy as the electricity flows through the lines. It is not a total chimera. Superconductors are beginning to be used to connect larger power grids to balance the charge between them.
Would you say you are a techno-optimist, in terms of finding a way out of the climate crisis?
No I will not. I think we will need technological advances, but the biggest problem is how we think about things. If we had the technology to produce half-price energy tomorrow, we would simply use twice as much. In condensed matter physics, you can’t think of things in isolation: you look at collective behavior. And I think that’s true of how we have to think about the world. The idea that scientists are separate from what they study goes hand in hand with the idea that the environment is that thing we can just take advantage of without having any effect on it. But we are learning very clearly that this is not the case.
You have extremely diverse references in the book, from the old From Taoist texts to action films from the 1990s. What do cultural references allow you to do besides entertain the reader?
When I was a graduate student, two of the women in my class were inspired to study physics when they saw Dana Scully in X files, who is a supernaturally gifted scientist. It really stuck with me, the idea that a fictional model can inspire people to do [science] when they might never have done it otherwise.
You end by saying that anyone can be a wizard, that is, a theoretical physicist – or a scientist more broadly.
It really is hope. There are still underrepresented groups in science. So the more people who can be enthusiastic about it, the more diversity we will achieve in the long run, which is really important for the health of the subject. This idea of a solitary genius is very damaging and incorrect. The broader the set of horizons represented and gathering ideas, the faster we will move forward.
You practicemartial arts, including praying mantis kung fu. Did physics influence your choice of martial art? Does it make you a better martial artist in any way?
Maybe, but it’s more than martial arts helping me to be a better physicist. They teach you internal discipline, which allows you to work long hours to learn everything you need to become a scientist. Also, a friend once asked me how I could give public talks about science because it’s not intimidating? It never really felt intimidating to me because I’ve been doing martial arts for a long time. Compared to fighting another person with a load of people watching, lecturing on physics isn’t a problem.
No one is going to come out of the audience and hit you.
Exactly. I’m thinking, “What’s the worst-case scenario here?”
• The magic of matter: crystals, chaos and the magic of physics by Felix Flicker is published by Profile (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply