March of physics

    In praise of the March meeting of the American Physical Society.

    Next week, over 11,000 physicists will gather in Boston for the annual American Physical Society (APS) March meeting. Be they first-time attendee students or seasoned old timers, it doubtless represents a highlight in the physics calendar.

    The meeting is inextricably associated with condensed-matter physics, but it now represents 28 APS units and committees spanning areas as wide ranging as atomic, molecular and optical physics, biological physics, and quantum information. How did the conference get so big? While commercial factors certainly play a role, the deeper historical reasons are tied to the evolution of the APS as an organization and indeed the post-war rise of solid-state physics and its expansionary descendant, condensed-matter physics (J. D. Martin, Physics Today 72, 30; 2019) — a topic discussed in detail in Joseph Martin’s recent book Solid State Insurrection: How the Science of Substance Made American Physics Matter.

    Most years, the meeting remains memorable for the buzz surrounding a particular topic that has taken the community by storm. Most famously, the 1987 meeting in New York has come to be remembered as the Woodstock of physics, such was the excitement generated by the recent discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in copper oxides.

    Other vivid memories of overflowing rooms packed with excited researchers include 2007 in Denver (the topic creating waves that year was graphene), 2010 in Portland (topological insulators) and last year in Los Angeles (bilayer graphene, slightly twisted, turns out to be superconducting). There is also that time in Las Vegas in 1986, when attendees were so taken in by the physics that it prompted a particularly down-beat local newspaper headline: ‘Physicists in town, lowest casino take ever’. The rumour is that no Las Vegas hotel has put in a bid for the March meeting since.

    What will the excitement be about this year? We couldn’t possibly say. What we do know is that it will be fascinating and fun in equal measure. Enjoy.

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