Key Problems

I'm a sucker for lists. Who isn't? They're fun and, at their best, highly educational. They encapsulate a lot of knowledge in a small space. Lists are also a fine source of material for late-night beer-fueled debate.

And speaking of lists: circa 1975 pure chance led me to a little book on the physics shelf of the Caltech campus bookstore. It was a shockingly inexpensive hardback, a product of the subsidized Soviet publishing industry, and I bought it. The title was Key Problems of Physics and Astrophysics, and at its core was a list. The author was V. L. Ginzburg --- who this year was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on superconductivity and superfluidity.

Alas, Vitaly Ginzburg's little book is no longer with me. In 1988 or thereabouts I lent it to a visitor who needed something to read during an imminent transcontinental flight. He promised to return it, but somehow never did. I think he was a semi-famous engineer, a senior member of some high-level S&T advisory committee, an aerospace industry executive ... far far above my pay grade, needless to say. Over the years I've entirely forgotten his name. Sic transit ...

But I still remember Key Problems clearly, including its cheap paper and hip-pocket-sized format. A week or two ago I happened to search online and discovered --- a copy of Ginzburg's more recent essay, "What problems of physics and astrophysics seem now to be especially important and interesting (thirty years later, already on the verge of XXI century)?" Yes, it's a rather unliterary translation, but the substance of the article shines through. (It appeared in the original Russian in Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk in 1999.)

Ginzburg brings to his list a lifetime of experience, a superb instinct for what's critical, and a fountain of creative energy. His current set of thirty key problems, slightly edited and abridged:

  1. controlled nuclear fusion
  2. high-temperature superconductivity
  3. metallic hydrogen and other exotic substances
  4. two-dimensional electron liquids
  5. solid-state physics questions including heterostructures and mesoscopics
  6. second-order phase transitions and Bose-Einstein condensation of gases
  7. surface physics
  8. liquid crystals and ferroelectrics
  9. fullerenes and nanotubes
  10. behavior of matter in superstrong magnetic fields
  11. nonlinear physics, including turbulence, solitons, chaos, and strange attractors
  12. X-ray lasers, gamma-ray lasers, and superhigh-power lasers
  13. superheavy elements and exotic nuclei
  14. mass spectrum of fundamental particles; quarks, gluons, quantum chromodynamics
  15. unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions
  16. Standard Model, Grand Unification, proton decay, neutrino mass, and magnetic monopoles
  17. fundamental length, and particle interactions at superhigh energies
  18. nonconservation of CP-invariance
  19. nonlinear phenomena in vacuum and superstrong magnetic fields, and vacuum phase transitions
  20. strings and M-theory
  21. experimental verification of General Relativity
  22. gravitational waves and their detection
  23. cosmology, inflation, the cosmological constant, and connections between cosmology and high-energy physics
  24. neutron stars, pulsars, and supernovae
  25. black holes and cosmic strings
  26. quasars and galactic nuclei, and the formation of galaxies
  27. dark matter (hidden mass) and its detection
  28. origin of superhigh-energy cosmic rays
  29. gamma-ray bursts and hypernovae
  30. neutrino physics and astronomy, and neutrino oscillations

Ginzburg explains, at a moderate level of technical detail, what these labels mean and why he deems each topic both important and approachable. I find it heartening that I can more or less understand what perhaps two-thirds of these problems are about. Perhaps drinking Potomac River water hasn't utterly fogged my wits ... yet.

(see also BooksToConsider (16 Apr 1999), WorthRemembering1 (28 Dec 2000), WorthRemembering2 (31 Dec 2000), MillenniumMath (5 Dec 2002), ... )

TopicScience - TopicPersonalHistory - 2003-10-11

(correlates: Comments on Key Problems, ThreePhoneCalls, NewtonianDogEarring, ...)

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