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Foam Fatale

On bubbles, robots, condensed matter, doughnuts, fan mail, art and life: an interview with Sidney Perkowitz

6 July 2005

Perkowitz is highly entertained by the universe around him

The pattern of foam applies to the smallest things we know, the quantum reality at the Planck limit, and the biggest, clusters of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years across...

Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University, studying condensed matter. He is also a science writer and playwright, and is currently writing a book on scientists in film. Moreoever, he is famously enamoured of foam. recently caught up with him for an interview to find out why.

You wrote the book on foam – literally (Universal Foam). Where did your interest in this humble substance come from?

It started just as described in the book. Every morning, I would grind coffee and steam up some milk to make a cappuccino or latte. Half asleep, I’d watch the milk bubble up under the steam wand and turn into a foam. It seemed the foam was never quite the same two days running, and I began to realize what a complex substance it is. I thought there was enough interesting science to write a light-hearted 1,000 word piece, but my literary agent swore he could sell a whole book on the subject. I thought he was wrong, but 70,000 words later, there was Universal Foam, and with a publisher too!

If you wanted to persuade us that foam matters in two sentences or fewer, what would you say?

The pattern of adjacent bubbles that makes up a foam applies to the smallest things we know, the confused bits of spacetime that make up quantum reality at the Planck limit, and the biggest, clusters of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years across, and even bigger, the multiverses that some theorists think are real.

What is your favorite foam? If you can't bear to choose just one, your top five list would do.

Three are food foams: good champagne, a perfect soufflé, and real whipped cream with a dash of vanilla. Two are inedible but beautiful and mysterious: foamed aluminum and aerogel.

Aluminum can exist as a foam? – well I never. We don’t usually think of solid substances existing as foam.

I was also blown away to find that metals like aluminum can be made in foam form. I visited a plant in California that makes the stuff and came away with samples of something truly intriguing: it’s shiny and looks gossamer-fragile, with an intricate foamy pattern, but it’s hard and strong like solid aluminum. Aerogel is basically foamed glass. The bubbles in it are too small to see, but there are so many of them that the material is mostly air. It has a mystical quality, looking like a solidified wisp of smoke. I had a perfect piece of it to look at until a clumsy colleague, a fellow physicist yet, broke it, cursed be his name.

Do people ever think you’re making these examples up?

No one has ever doubted any of the exotic foams I describe, though I get letters about other issues.

For example?

One irate lawyer wrote to me on his New York law firm letterhead to berate me for daring to present the Big Bang theory in my book, which he said was illogical and a pack of lies. I wrote back as politely as I could that I was only presenting what a majority of scientists think is our current best shot at explaining the universe. If the theory conflicted with his religious beliefs or otherwise left him unhappy, he was certainly free to reject it and put his trust in whatever worked for him. In typical aggressive lawyer style, though, that didn’t placate him, and his next letter got even more demanding and insulting. I didn’t continue the correspondence.

Does this happen a lot?

There was the reader who wrote me an even nastier letter that more or less called me a careless imbecile. What was my crime? Well, I had used the phrase "ATM machine" in a piece, whereas any educated person knows that the "M" in ATM already means ‘machine’ and so my phrase was redundant, apparently a hanging offense. I have no doubt that if this gentleman had seen me at a cocktail party, he would have started frothing at the mouth (there’s foam again) and gone right for my jugular. That letter never got an answer either.

Has all your feedback been negative?

One sweet gentleman wrote to tell me that my book Empire of Light, which says little or nothing about a Divine Being, brought him closer to God, and he hoped that didn’t upset me too much. Now that’s what I call a fan letter.

Your research can probably be best described as using radiation to learn more about condensed matter. What is condensed matter, exactly?

Actually foam is part of condensed matter. The area used to be called solid state physics, when it focused on crystalline materials like quartz, salt, gold, iron, and the technologically useful semiconductors that go into computer chips. But then it broadened to include liquids and solid-liquid or even solid-liquid-gas combinations – anything that’s not 100% gas, hence "condensed matter."

Why do we want to know about condensed matter? How can such increased knowledge improve our lives?

It’s always surprised me that in many ways condensed matter physics has more impact on our daily lives than most other branches of physics, from all the electronic gizmos that surround us to the behavior of biological systems and even, yes, delicious edible foams, but really isn’t well known as a scientific area. Dennis Overbye, the science writer for the New York Times, recently suggested that the name "condensed matter physics" is the problem – it lands with such a dull thud. Do you have a better suggestion? Maybe we should run a contest on your website. I would offer a signed copy of Universal Foam as a prize.

We’ll definitely take you up on that offer! What is your favorite or acronym or piece of scientific jargon from your field? (We quite liked the sound of ‘metalorganic magnetron sputtering’ when we were snooping through your CV.)

‘Metalorganic magnetron sputtering’ does have a ring, but that technique was actually used by my coauthors, not me, in that paper. How about Azbel-Kaner cyclotron resonance (AKCR), a phenomenon where the electrons in a solid go around in tiny cyclotron-like circles, as described by two Soviet physicists? For reasons now obscure to me, that was a centerpiece of my Ph. D. dissertation.

We also noticed you’ve written an article called Doughnuts Reveal Life’s Secrets. Does this mean cops are smarter than we give them credit for?

Do London bobbies eat doughnuts too? The article was a review of a book that really had a nice take on applying science to everyday activities, such as giving a clever way to add up your supermarket bill faster than the cash register could do it. It also revealed how to dunk a doughnut so that it doesn’t collapse and fall into the coffee cup – put it in horizontally (if your cup is wide enough) rather than vertically.

You teach a course at Emory called "Envisioning Light," about light, science and art. One of the issues that arises is whether tools or technology diminish the value of art. Do you feel this viewpoint is prevalent, and if so, why?

There’s a certain romantic tradition that holds if we understand something too deeply, we automatically lose wonder and awe at its beauty. I think understanding only increases appreciation. Somewhere or other I’ve written about the joy of dual vision, part sheer awe and part the pleasure of understanding.

There’s another angle to this too. A few years ago the painter David Hockney put forth the thesis that some of the greatest Renaissance painters used various optical devices to help them set up and create their artworks. His idea was supported, though I would say not absolutely proven, by optical analysis carried out by a physicist. I was a presenter at a symposium dedicated to discussing this controversial idea. The art historians were almost unanimously up in arms against the idea that the sacred creative abilities of great artists could have been aided by anything so crass as an optical lens. The practicing artists (and there were some major ones there, including Chuck Close) were generally more pragmatic, saying or implying that they would be perfectly OK with anything that helped them produce a satisfying work of art. I’ve met and worked with enough artists to come to the same conclusion, and that’s basically what I presented: there was a surprising amount of optical knowledge and equipment available by the time of the Renaissance, I’d be very surprised if artists didn’t use it as necessary, and if it produced good artwork, who cares about the steps along the way? So it’s the romantic ideal of pure unsullied creative force and aesthetic vision, vs. a view that of course technology and beauty and understanding can and should all come together.

Who is your favorite artist and why?

Since I was raised in NYC, my favorites were burned in early when I hung around the Museum of Modern Art. Van Gogh, Magritte, Henri Rousseau, and Max Beckman stand out, mostly I think because at least some of their work has something mysterious, inexplicable, ineffable, ambiguous. There’s a quote from Georges Braque to the effect that the only interesting part of art is the part you can’t explain, and that’s the part that works for me.

However, as an adult, I’ve encountered one artist who got to me absolutely viscerally. That’s the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, who had spells of madness and God knows what else. The first time I saw his stuff, my spine tingled and my hair stood straight up. Why? Totally inexplicable – it just is.

What is the best course you have ever taught? Was there ever a student question that opened up a new vista of thought for you?

"Envisioning Light" continues to be my favorite, and yes, one student question did open up a new direction for me though maybe not in the way you think. The student, a freshman Theater major, asked if she might write a play instead of the term paper I require. I said yes, and she wrote a wonderful play about the real scientist Ralph Alpher, who should have gotten much of the credit for validating the Big Bang theory but didn’t. The play was presented at Emory and elsewhere, and this experience is what got me into my own career as a playwright.

Have you noticed any major changes in the attitude or enthusiasm for science amongst your students over the past few decades?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the biological sciences, rightfully seen as a new and exciting frontier. Interest in the physical sciences has dropped, though, and that correlates with a decrease in quantitative intelligence among students. It still takes more math to be a physics or astronomy major than it does to be a biology or neuroscience major, and as far as I can tell, a generation that needs a calculator to figure out 10/2.5 is in major trouble with quantitative reasoning. I also have some suspicions that critical thinking skills have eroded. So while enthusiasm may be high, I wonder about the quality of would-be scientists. I also think there are some unreasonable expectations about what a person can expect from a research career.

You grew up in New York, but currently reside and teach in Georgia. Do you find that the American South is a bit hostile to science compared to the north? Do you feel your students have been affected by any anti-science curricula in their pasts?

"Hostile" may be too strong a word, but some kinds of religious faith do put up strong barriers to accepting what science tries to say. And like the lawyer I told you about above who didn’t like the Big Bang, there is no "you go your way, I’ll go mine" among some of the faithful, who seem to want it only their way. Is this attitude more prevalent in parts of the US that have a strong religious tradition? Well, in general, the US by most measures takes religion more seriously than much of Europe, so I wonder if we’re not talking about the whole country, not just one region. As for the students I encounter at Emory, they’re a diverse lot from all over the US so it’s hard to draw any conclusions about regions. I’ve never encountered a word of protest when I talk about the Big Bang, but few students would be brave enough to express that in class anyway.

You teach some science writing at Emory. Are you meant to be indoctrinating your students into the dark arts of dry technical writing typically desired by most scientific journals, or do you try to teach a bit of creative flair?

I’m not very interested in teaching scientific journalese: boredom with that genre is one reason I switched to pop science writing. One writing course I co-taught with a colleague from English, called "Reading and Writing Physics," focused on using those skills to understand important physical ideas. The students read the writings of the great scientists, we discussed them in class, and then they were encouraged to write in every different mode – quick in-class mini-essays in response to specific questions, personal essays, short stories, poetry, anything that would give insight into ideas such as relativity and quantum physics.

You’re writing a book about science and scientists in films. What film would you say had the best (most accurate) science?

Although my survey of films has a long way to go, so far, I’ve found the asteroid-hits-the-earth-and-wipes-out-all-life films to mostly be not bad in the general outlines of what would happen, though they conveniently forget to mention that these events are due only once per 100 million years.

And which was the most ridiculously bad?

By far the worst film I’ve come across so far is the 2004 gem What the {Bleep} Do We Know. This purported to be a serious film about quantum physics that made outlandish claims about what quantum effects could do for you, yes you, in your very own personal life – as one reviewer put it, "Thinner Thighs Through Quantum Mechanics." It was made in semi-documentary style, interviewing supposed experts, most of whom turned out to be shills for a cult group whose leader channels a 50,000 year-old guru from Atlantis…or was it Lemuria, I forget.

Do you think the stereotype of scientists as unfeeling, unsociable geeks, frequently seen in films, has a basis in fact? Why do you think this stereotype has become so entrenched?

I’m still studying this further for my book. So far it isn’t clear that the nerd stereotype we all imagine is always there in films. For instance, in Meteor, a 1979 effort about an asteroid hitting the Earth, Sean Connery is a he-man of an ex-NASA scientist, who races his sailboat, is rude when he wants to be and foul-mouthed all the time, wears a very cool sheepskin jacket, and gets an attractive visiting Soviet woman scientist (Natalie Wood) to think nice thoughts about him. No nerd, he. But is there a basis in fact for the nerd idea? I think yes, but not just for scientists. People who live in their heads a lot tend to lack those people-to-people antennae; I’ve seen academic humanists who were pretty unplugged too.

Let’s talk about your plays. One of these is called Glory Enough: Rosalind Franklin and DNA. In this play, is your Rosalind most like Jim Watson’s unflattering bluestocking, Anne Sayre’s wronged martyr or Brenda Maddox’s recent balanced compromise between the two? Tell us more about this play, and how it was received.

I liked Sayre’s book about Franklin (Rosalind Franklin and DNA) so much that Anne Sayre is a major character in my play. She and Franklin, who is back from the dead, finally get to confront Jim Watson and sparks fly among them. The play takes the stand that Franklin was indeed treated badly by Watson, but doesn’t turn her into a saint or a martyr. While Sayre’s book did come down too heavily on generic anti-female discrimination as a factor in the story, I don’t think she paints Franklin as an utter martyr either. Franklin’s own edginess and ability to put people off come through, along with her sterling qualities of deep friendship for a certain few, intelligence, and dedication. I hope those same qualities come through in my play.

Sayre’s book worked for me, even where it went wrong, with its depiction of a friendship between two women. Maddox is more professional and balanced, as you say, but with less juice. I would like to have known both Franklin and Sayre.

The play was presented twice at Emory last February to full houses, though not in a huge venue. The acting and directing were first-rate, and the audience loved the intense interactions among all three characters (plus Jacques, Franklin’s real-life mentor and perhaps someone she could have cared about). The next day we had a distinguished panel discuss the Franklin-Watson story and answer questions with an audience of 100, many of them female undergraduate science majors.

What about another one of your plays, Friedmann’s Balloon?

Aleksander Friedmann was a real Soviet mathematician/physicist who is the grandfather or the expanding universe. In the 1920’s he told Einstein there was just one little teensy-weensy error in General Relativity. Einstein had fixed the math so that the universe came out to be static, neither expanding nor contracting. Friedmann pointed out that the math did so allow it to change size. To Einstein’s credit, although he at first rejected what this young upstart had to say, he later accepted Friednmann’s result and said his (Einstein’s) original calculation was the biggest blunder of his life.

Two other interesting things about Friedmann. In World War I, he served against the Germans in the Soviet air corps. As a mathematician, he knew how to calculate bomb trajectories and so became the most accurate bombardier the Soviets had. He later had some pangs of conscience about this. To me, this was a precursor to the pangs of conscience some scientists have had about helping to develop the atomic bomb, though Friedmann was not involved in bombing civilians.

The second thing is, Friedmann died dramatically, after a world record balloon ascent he made to study weather patterns, another area to which he applied his math He was only 37, the same age as Rosalind Franklin when she died. (I seem to be specializing in misunderstood scientists who died young) Friedmann’s short life seemed interesting enough to fill out a one act play, which has been presented at Emory and elsewhere.

In your play/dance performance Albert and Isadora, Einstein dances with Isadore Duncan and they exchange ideas about relativity. We understand that you played Einstein – and had to dance on stage!

Ah, if only I were a good enough dancer to do it on stage. I love to dance, but am no-one’s primo ballerino. However, as I wrote Einstein’s part, he’s shy about dancing with Isadora, and would rather talk while she dances. I was able to do Einstein talking OK, after messing up my hair appropriately. Lori Bellilove danced so beautifully as Isadora that we were all spellbound.

Where did you get the idea for this?

The piece came about because Lori approached a colleague of mine in New York during an Einstein exhibit there, and said, why can’t dance be involved too. The next thing I knew, I was writing a script. The reactions after several performances have been great, with one exception: the guy who said "I liked the piece, but why did you have to put in all that relativity stuff?"

You have been the president of the Society for Literature and Science. What is this organization, and what are some of the things it's trying to achieve?

SLS (now SLSA, we’ve formally added Art) is a scholarly group that tries to merge the interests of humanists with those of scientists. It has a journal Configurations, an annual US meeting, and sometimes one overseas. At a meeting, you might hear papers about astronomy and Virginia Woolf, the moral issues robots have raised in literature (one of my talks), or the influence of science on the art of Marcel Duchamp. Although the meetings are the most enjoyable ones I go to, there are issues. The humanists vastly outnumber the scientists, for one thing. Also people operating outside their areas of expertise don’t always do that well, and many talks really don’t work. On the other hand, there are sublime moments when it all comes together in a way rarely seen in specialized groups. These make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Have you ever written any fiction?

My plays are fictionalized but contain big doses of real science and scientists. However, I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to an anthology, and am slowly pecking away at that. This seems to be the hardest genre except for poetry.

What is your favorite novel featuring realistic portrayals of scientists?

My all time favorite scientist novel is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, which I read as a teenager. I couldn’t tell you now without rereading it if it’s realistic, but boy was it inspirational!

You’ve become known for speaking about digital people and robots on the media circuit. Where did this interest arise?

I had written two books about science and wanted to do one about technology When I cast around for an idea, I became aware how often robots and related areas appeared both in the latest technological news and in popular culture. That seemed a winning combination for a book so I went for it (Digital People).

Do you think we are in any danger from these creations?

The only danger right now is in having a supposedly capable walking robot suddenly tangle its feet and fall over on you. We are a long way from any science fiction scenarios where the robots decide they’ve had enough of humanity and do us all in, for three reasons: they’re not yet all that intelligent, though there are definite glimmerings; they are even less capable of volition, so it’s hard to see where the motivation for the robot revolution would arise; and if there were such a revolution, it would have to be completed in 30 minutes, the average battery life for robots.

Did you like the film I, Robot?

Yes I did, hokey as parts of it got. It bore little relation to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, the supposed inspiration, but did show people where this fascinating technology may be going – someday that is, not next month.

Do you think people will always fear new science and technology? Do you think maybe this might be a good thing?

Yes, new things generally elicit fear. A lot of current sci/tech is especially hard to deal with because it hits on fundamental areas of birth and death, and changes in those parts of our lives are not easy to absorb. I believe that ultimately more good than bad will come out of science and technology, but in any case, scientific progress will just keep coming at us. One way to tip the balance to good rather than bad is for people to be a bit suspicious of the latest miracles until they get some idea of how miraculous they really are.