Scientist Felix Flicker: ‘Compared with a kung fu fight in public, giving a talk on physics isn’t a problem’ | Physics

Felix Flicker is a theoretical physicist working on the quantum underpinnings of matter. Born in Devon, he studied at Oxford, the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, and Bristol University, where he completed his PhD. Now a physics lecturer at Cardiff University, he is also a kung fu teacher and former British champion of shuai jiao (Chinese wrestling). Flicker, 35, has just published his first book, The Magick of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Wizardry of Physics, exploring 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 biggest area in physics – about a third of all physicists work on it – but nobody’s ever heard of it. One reason is because it’s the study of familiar stuff – 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 address that.

You invoke wizards to cast light on the subject. But isn’t physics a repudiation of magic?
I don’t think they’re at odds at all. [The folklorist] James George Frazer said: “Magic like science postulates the order and uniformity of nature; hence the attraction both of magic and of science, which open up a boundless vista to those who can penetrate to the secret springs of nature.” His views can be quite outdated, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Some people don’t like science, or are told from a young age that it’s not for them, whereas everyone is interested in magic to some degree. By emphasising that connection, I thought there might be a way for a broader 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 wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. Really, I think it was the fancy words – such as “photon” and “special relativity”. They operate like magic words, in that they tell you something about the world but you don’t really know what. And there’s this set of exalted people who do know what it means and you just have to trust them. I found that quite reassuring.

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Define condensed matter physics.
It’s the study of matter – of the states of matter and how to transform between them. It’s also trying to understand how the familiar world around us, which is entirely composed of matter, comes about from the rather paradoxical and counterintuitive world of quantum mechanics.

The book raises the question: “What is matter?” but keeps giving us different answers.
There’s no right answer, but I’ll give it a go: matter is the whole that is more than the sum of its parts. For example, when water is in vapour form, you can think of it as individual water molecules, by and large. But when it condenses into liquid form and then ice, it’s no longer individual molecules, it’s clumped together to become its own thing, and it has properties that are not present in any of the individual molecules. That’s what I mean by the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli dismissed condensed matter physics as “the physics of dirt”. I assume he didn’t mean it in a nice way.
No he didn’t. 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 are beams of light made of, and that sort of thing. It was much later on that we started to be advanced enough with quantum mechanics that we could consider many different atoms and molecules interacting. That seems like an unmanageable task if you think that, inside a single lump of stuff, you might have 1,023 atoms. Pauli thought of this study of matter as further away from the pure, esoteric studies of physics at the time.

What was Pauli overlooking? Or to put it another way: why should we care about condensed matter physics?
Actually we do care about it a lot. We wouldn’t have computers, phones, modern lighting, the internet and so much more without it. It underlies pretty much our entire world. And it’s building towards the future as well, underlying advances such as the move towards greener energy. But I think that ubiquity and practicality are why we tend not 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?
Quantum computers is one. We’re right on the cusp of those being 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…
That’s probably the most pressing topic in condensed matter physics. Superconductors are one of the main routes to trying to make quantum computers. But also, they conduct electricity perfectly with no loss. If you built power lines out of them, you would eliminate the [loss] of energy as electricity travels down the lines. It isn’t a total pipe dream. Superconductors are starting to be employed to connect up bigger power networks to balance the load across them.

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

Would you call yourself a techno-optimist, in terms of solving our way out of the climate crisis?
No I wouldn’t. I think we will need technological advances, but the much bigger problem is the way we think about things. If we got the technology to generate energy at half the cost tomorrow, we would just use twice as much. In condensed matter physics, you can’t think of things in isolation: you’re looking at collective behaviour. And I think that’s true of how we need to think about the world. The idea that scientists are separate from the stuff they’re studying goes hand in hand with the idea that the environment is this thing that we can just take from without having an effect on it. But we’re learning very clearly that that’s not the case.

You have wildly diverse references in the book, from ancient Taoist texts to 1990s action movies. What do cultural references allow you to do besides entertain the reader?
When I was a master’s student, two of the women in my class had been inspired to study physics by seeing Dana Scully in The X-Files, who is a supernaturally gifted scientist. That really stuck with me, the idea that a fictional role model can inspire people to do [science] when they might otherwise never have done it.

You end by saying that anybody can be a wizard, by which you mean theoretical physicist – or scientist more broadly.
That’s really the hope. There are still underrepresented groups in science. So the more people that can be enthused about it, the greater diversity we’ll achieve long term, which is really important to the health of the subject. This idea of a lone genius is very damaging and incorrect. The broader a set of backgrounds that are represented and bring ideas together, the faster we’ll make advances.

You practise martial arts, including praying mantis kung fu. Did physics inform your choice of martial art? Does it make you a better martial artist in any way?
Perhaps, but it’s more that martial arts help me be a better physicist. They teach you internal discipline, which is how you’re able to work long hours to learn all the stuff you need to learn to be a scientist. Also, a friend asked me once how I can give public talks about science because isn’t it daunting? It never really struck me as daunting because I’ve been doing martial arts for a long time. Compared with fighting another person with a load of people watching, giving a talk about physics is not a problem.

Nobody’s going to come out of the audience and wallop you.
Exactly. I think: “What’s the worst case scenario here?”

The Magick of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Wizardry 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


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