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The Dayside : Without practical importance or intellectual glamor

By: Charles Day
Fri Jan 24 13:47:00 UTC 2014

Physics Today's first issue appeared in May 1948. To celebrate the magazine's golden jubilee, the editorial staff put out a special issue. Instead of the usual mix of news stories, feature articles, book reviews, and obituaries, the 50th anniversary issue included articles about the magazine's history and speculations about what future discoveries would be made.

The May 1998 issue also ran five, 12-page articles made up of figures and extracts drawn from each of the magazine's five decades in existence. I belonged to the team that chose material for the last decade, 1988–98. As a member of the American Astronomical Society, I had received Physics Today for seven years before I joined the magazine's editorial staff in 1997. However, I couldn't recall much about the issues that had landed in my mail slot. To help make selections for the anniversary issue, I had to leaf through 120 issues.

Of all the things I skimmed from 1988–98, two series of articles have lodged most firmly in my memory. The first was Irwin Goodwin's news coverage of the rise and fall of the Superconducting Super Collider. As Physics Today's Washington correspondent, Irwin reported on all the significant hearings and meetings about the SSC, both on and off Capitol Hill. And he did so with scrupulous impartiality.

Spin glasses, parts I–VII

The second series was Philip Anderson's history of spin glasses. In seven installments in the magazine's Reference Frame department, Anderson recounted the development of the field, which began in the 1950s with experimental investigations into the properties of insulators, such as zinc oxide, doped lightly with magnetic ions, such as manganese.

If you use Google to find an image of "spin glasses," you'll come across these unusual wine glasses marketed by Olive & Cocoa of Salt Lake City, Utah. CREDIT: Olive & Cocoa

If you use Google to find an image of "spin glasses," you'll come across these unusual wine glasses marketed by Olive & Cocoa of Salt Lake City, Utah. CREDIT: Olive & Cocoa

Because the electron spins are randomly distributed in such materials, they can't readily order themselves into ferromagnetic (spins parallel) or antiferromagnetic (spins antiparallel) domains to lower their collective energy. Instead, spin glasses abide in myriad metastable and irregular configurations. Attaining any one of those configurations entails satisfying some spins' quest for stability while frustrating that of others.

Anderson must have been enthralled with spin glasses from the moment he first encountered them. The first of his columns begins:

The history of spin glass may be the best example I know of the dictum that a real scientific mystery is worth pursuing to the ends of the Earth for its own sake, independently of any obvious practical importance or intellectual glamor.

In the subsequent columns, Anderson told his readers how he and his fellow theorists came gradually to understand spin glasses. He also pointed out that the same mathematical tools developed for spin glasses turned out to be applicable to other problems, including the traveling salesman and neural networks.

Indeed, just last week I came across another application of spin-glass physics. Chi Ho Yeung of Aston University in the UK and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), together with K. Y. Michael Wong and Bo Li of HKUST, set themselves the task of analyzing the best way to organize networks that have to balance the competing priorities of coverage and maintenance cost. The abstract of their paper begins as follows:

A comprehensive coverage is crucial for communication, supply and transportation networks, yet it is limited by the requirement of extensive infrastructure and heavy energy consumption. Here we draw an analogy between spins in antiferromagnet and outlets in supply networks, and apply techniques from the studies of disordered systems to elucidate the effects of balancing the coverage and supply costs on the network behavior.

I'm not sure whether Yeung, Wong, and Li attribute intellectual glamor to their study, but it's certainly of obvious practical importance—50 or so years after basic, curiosity-driven research on spin glasses began.

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