Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Squalid State

This posting is not about the status of my flat (no comment as to whether that would be an appropriate title).

“Squalid State” is the derogatory term used to refer to the field of “Solid State” physics by other physicists, and sometimes with good reason. The field is full of people studying what appears to be the boring minutia of particular physical materials: why this impurity increases specific heat and that impurity reduces it – and so forth. This entire field of study looked so horrid to me when I was an undergrad that I absolutely refused to even consider taking a solid state physics course.

It is rather ironic then that I became a solid state physicist – or, more properly, a “condensed matter” physicist who spends a lot of time thinking about solid state. So why am I now excited about the field whereas once-upon-a-time I thought the whole endeavor was dismal? Well, I now realize that some of the most exciting physics out there is in condensed matter systems, that the diversity of condensed matter is unrivaled in any other field, that many of the deepest ideas can be tested and explored best in condensed matter systems, not to mention the importance of potential applications in this field. Unfortunately, these exciting features are extremely well hidden in introductory solid state physics courses --- almost as if by design.

This year the physics department at Oxford has decided to revamp its third year syllabus. Everyone agreed that the previous third year undergrad program was not working and that we would all benefit from trying something new. I volunteered to develop the solid state physics course for a maiden voyage in 2010-2011, when I will teach this to 180 student, more or less. I view myself as the ideal person to teach this precisely because I thought it was so boring. My job will be to make it non-awful, to somehow bring out the exciting part of the field rather than the dismal part.

However, to some extent I am trying to do this with one hand tied behind my back. The IOP (british Institute of Physics) mandates that certain topics MUST be taught in an undergraduate syllabus. Further, my colleagues will not stand for me eliminating certain other topics. Finally, the total number of lectures cannot exceed 22. Despite these rather serious boundary conditions, I still think that I can put together a very nice course – and this is what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks, and will continue to work on for the next year.

So, to all the physicists reading this: Did anyone have a good solid state physics course? If so, why did you like it, who taught it, what was covered, what book did you use?


Don Monroe said...

I'm not sure it's useful, but I enjoyed my undergraduate solid-state course, which was also a graduate electrical engineering course, at MIT. Bob Birgeneau used the then-new 4th edition of Kittel's "Introduction to..." with some phonon stuff that had been excised from the 3rd edition. He also use Ashcroft and Mermin, but I don't think he followed their order. (They start with Drude theory, I think, whereas most books start with crystal structure.) I kind of liked Ziman's intro as well.

You'd kind of hope that there would be some new books in the 30 years since then, though. I do think you need to be clear on whether you're teaching solid-state or condensed-matter physics.

Stephen said...

I can't help but wonder what would happen if you just called the IOP's bluff. If you dropped all mention of np junctions, would they really declare that degree in physics from Oxford was no longer officially a degree in physics?

Ilya said...

Wanted to send a shiny ray of encouragement your way: I've not heard you give a talk that would not be entertaining at least in its form, even if its subject matter was solid and (con)dense(d). (har! har!) I'd really like to know how it turns out, since I was of a similar opinion when starting grad school, and came to a similar conclusion at the end of that enterprise.

Do you have the option to treat (or re-visit) some topics from a many-body point of view? I think that for me part of the problem with solid state as presented in the undergrad (in the course I'd always dreaded but never actually took) was a lack of this connection: subjects presented were mainly band theory augmented by musings on the density of states, without talking about how this density of states might originate from the "elementary" interactions.

What is the target level of the course? And what are the subject mandated by the IOP?

Off-topic: It would be great to see you if your travels take you here again.

Doug Natelson said...

As an undergrad, I took a course from Phuan Ong that used Kittel's Intro book plus some of his own notes. At the time, I didn't think I really got much out of it, but looking back at that notebook, I realize how good it really was. In grad school I took a pretty good course out of Ashcroft and Mermin, which is a terrific book except for the fact that it ends in 1975. If you end up writing notes for such a course, please lend me a copy! I'm very interested. Other books that I've heard decent things about are Ibach and Luth (though the first edition was so full of typos that it was painful) and of course Marder's tome. Still, for your constraints, it's a tall order. Good luck!

Steve said...

Thank's both Don and Doug ! I would have liked to do a more modern Cond-Mat course, but given my constraints, it seems it has to be a traditional solid state course with very little post 1950, unfortunately. I will certainly make my notes public so you can see how it comes out.

Steve said...

Stephen: Yes, I think a lot of people have been wondering the same thing. Who makes this IOP list anyway? And do they really know more about what is good for our students than we do?

Here is the Cond-Mat requirement list:


Mechanical properties of matter to include elasticity and thermal expansion

Inter-atomic forces and bonding

Phonons and heat capacity

Crystal structure and Bragg scattering

Electron theory of solids to the level of simple band structure

Semiconductors and doping

Magnetic properties of matter


Obviously there is quite a bit of interpretation that can occur here. My colleagues here are likely to put much stricter constraints on me than the IOPm to be honest. For example, IOP no longer mandates that the pn junction be taught. I think I'm going to toss that out in favor of the MOSFET. But strictly speaking I could throw them both out being that they are not on the IOP list, although I'd get a lot of push-back locally.

Steve said...

Ilya: Thanks for the vote of confidence! I'm afraid many-body physics is close to verboten at this level. Alas.

Peter Armitage said...

I'm into my 3rd year of Intro to Cond Mat here at JHU. I've used Kittel, A &M, and now Ibach and Luth. I think I like the last one the most of the three (for this class... for myself personally I prefer A&M), but like most people teaching the course nowadays use my own notes almost exclusively.