Skip to main content Accessibility help

Prestige Asymmetry in American Physics: Aspirations, Applications, and the Purloined Letter Effect

  • Joseph D. Martin (a1)


Why do similar scientific enterprises garner unequal public approbation? High energy physics attracted considerable attention in the late-twentieth-century United States, whereas condensed matter physics – which occupied the greater proportion of US physicists – remained little known to the public, despite its relevance to ubiquitous consumer technologies. This paper supplements existing accounts of this much remarked-upon prestige asymmetry by showing that popular emphasis on the mundane technological offshoots of condensed matter physics and its focus on human-scale phenomena have rendered it more recondite than its better-known sibling field. News reports about high energy physics emphasize intellectual achievement; reporting on condensed matter physics focuses on technology. And whereas frontier-oriented rhetoric of high energy physics communicates ideals of human potential, discoveries that smack of the mundane highlight human limitations and fail to resonate with the widespread aspirational vision of science – a consequence I call “the purloined letter effect.”



Hide All
Abrahams, Marc. 2010. “Geim Becomes First Nobel & Ig Nobel Winner.” Improbable Research, (last accessed August 3, 2016).
Anderson, Philip W. 1972. “More Is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Nature of Hierarchical Structure in Science.” Science 177 (4047): 393396.
Anderson, Philip W. 2001. “More Is Different – One More Time.” In More is Different: Fifty Years of Condensed Matter Physics, edited by Ong, Nai-Phuan and Bhatt, Ravin, 19. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Anderson, Philip W. 2011. More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon. Singapore: World Scientific.
Balandin, Alexander A. 2011. “Thermal Properties of Graphene and Nanostructured Carbon Materials.” Nature Materials 10 (8): 569581.
Bell Telephone Magazine . 1949. “The ‘Transistor.’” (Fall): 240.
Berry, Michael V., and Geim, Andre K.. 1997. “Of Flying Frogs and Levitrons.” European Journal of Physics 18 (4): 307.
Brooks, Michael. 2016. “It's Mind-Blowing What Our Puny Brains Can Do.” New Scientist, April 13, (last accessed January 11, 2017).
Brown, Louis. 1999. A Radar History of World War II: Technical and Military Imperatives. Bristol: Institute of Physics.
Browne, Malcolm W. 1979. “Nobel Prizes Are Awarded to 3 Physicists and 2 Chemists.” New York Times, October 16, p. 1.
Bucchi, Massimiano. 1998. Science and the Media: Alternative Routes to Scientific Communications. New York: Routledge.
Burkhardt, Jeffrey. 1999. “Scientific Values and Moral Education in the Teaching of Science.” Perspectives on Science 7 (1): 87110.
Bush, George W. 2007. “Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 23, 2007.” The American Presidency Project, (last accessed August 2, 2016).
Carroll, Sean. 2016. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton.
Cartwright, Nancy, and Frigg, Roman. 2007. “String Theory under Scrutiny.” Physics World 20 (9): 1415.
Castro Neto, Antonio H., Guinea, Francisco, Peres, Nuno Miguel R., Novoselov, Kostya S., and Geim, Andre K.. 2009. “The Electronic Properties of Graphene.” Reviews of Modern Physics 81 (1): 109.
Chang, Kenneth. 2006. “Technology and Engineering.” In A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, 2nd ed., edited by Blum, Deborah, Knudson, Mary, and Henig, Robin Marantz, 209215. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chicago Tribune . 1970. “California Scientist and 2 Win Nobel.” 28 October, p. B9.
Chicago Tribune . 1974. “American, 2 Britons Win Nobels.” 16 October, p. 13.
Chicago Tribune . 1975. “American Physicist Wins Nobel Award.” 18 October, p. N2.
Chicago Tribune . 1976. “Yanks Sweep Science Field for This Year's Nobel Prizes.” 19 October, p. 2.
Chicago Tribune . 1977. “3 Split Nobel Physics Award.” 12 October, p. 2.
Chicago Tribune . 1979. “3 Yanks win science Nobel Prizes.” 16 October, p. 2.
Colapinto, John. 2014. “Material Question.” The New Yorker, 22 December, (last accessed March 24, 2017).
Committee on CMMP, Solid State Sciences Committee, National Research Council. 2010. Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The Science of the World Around Us. Washington DC: National Academies Press.
Cooper, Leon N. 2014. Science and Human Experience: Values, Culture, and the Mind. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dupré, John. 2001. Human Nature and the Limits of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eckert, Michael, and Schubert, Helmut. 1990. Crystals, Electrons, Transistors: From Scholar's Study to Industrial Research, translated by Hughes, Thomas. New York: American Institute of Physics.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. 1956. “Remarks on the State of the Union Message, Key West, Florida. January 5, 1956.” The American Presidency Project, (last accessed August 2, 2016).
Endersby, Jim. 2008. Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Evans, John H. 2014. “Faith in Science in Global Perspective: Implications for Transhumanism.” Public Understanding of Science 23 (7): 814832.
Fahy, Declan. 2015. The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Feynman, Richard P., and Leighton, Ralph. 1985. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. London: W. W. Norton & Co.
Fleury, Paul A. 1991. Statement to the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Development of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, 101st Congress, 1st session. Hearing on the Department of Energy's Superconducting Super Collider project, April 16.
Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic.
Geim, Andre K. 2009. “Graphene: Status and Prospects.” Science 324 (5934): 15301534.
Geim, Andre K. 2010. “Random Walk to Graphene.”, (last accessed July 21, 2015).
Godin, Benoît. 2006. “The Linear Model of Innovation: The Historical Construction of an Analytical Framework.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 31 (6): 639667.
Gormley, Melinda. 2016. “Pulp Science: Education and Communication in the Paperback Book Revolution.” Endeavour 40 (1): 2437.
Greene, Brian. 1999. The Elegant Universe. New York: Norton, 1999.
Hecht, Gabrielle. 2009. The Radiance of France: Power and National Identity after World War II. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Hoddeson, Lillian, Braun, Ernst, Teichmann, Jürgen, and Weart, Spencer, eds. 1992. Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from the History of Solid State Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hoddeson, Lillian, and Daitch, Vicki. 2002. True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen. Washington DC: Joseph Henry Press.
Hoddeson, Lillian, and Kolb, Adrienne W.. 2000. “The Superconducting Super Collider's Frontier Outpost, 1983–1988.” Minerva 38 (3): 271310.
Hull, Albert W. 1944. “The Outlook for the Physicist and Prospective Physicist in Industry.” American Journal of Physics 12 (2): 6270.
James, Jeremiah, and Joas, Christian. 2015. “Subsequent and Subsidiary? Rethinking the Role of Applications in Establishing Quantum Mechanics.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45 (5): 641702.
Janssen, Michel. 2002. “Reconsidering a Scientific Revolution: The Case of Einstein versus Lorentz.” Physics in Perspective 4 (4): 421446.
Joas, Christian. 2011. “Campos que interagem: Física quântica e a transferência de conceitos entre física de partículas, nuclear e do estado sólido.” In Teoria quântica: Estudos históricos e implicações culturais, edited by Freire, Olival Jr., Pessoa, Osvaldo Jr., and Bromberg, Joan L., 109151. Campina Grande, Brasil: Livraria da física.
Jones, Elizabeth. 2015. “Sci-Fi and Jurassic Park Have Driven Research, Scientists Say.” The Conversation, 10 June, (last accessed August 2, 2017).
Jones, Elizabeth. 2017. “The Development of Ancient DNA Research.” PhD diss., University College London.
Kaiser, David. 2005. “The Atomic Secret in Red Hands?: American Suspicions of Theoretical Physicists during the Early Cold War.” Representations 90 (1): 2860.
Keith, Stephen T., and Quédec, Pierre. 1992. “Magnetism and Magnetic Materials.” In Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from the History of Solid State Physics, edited by Hoddeson, Lillian, Braun, Ernst, Teichmann, Jurgen, and Weart, Spencer, 359442. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kevles, Daniel J. 1978. The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. New York: Knopf.
Kline, Ronald. 1995. “Construing ‘Technology’ as ‘Applied Science’: Public Rhetoric of Scientists and Engineers in the United States, 1880–1945. Isis 86 (2): 194221.
Meme, Know Your. 2015. “Fucking Magnets, How Do They Work?” (last accessed August 3, 2016).
Laubichler, Manfred D., and Maienschein, Jane. 2007. From Embryology to Evo-devo: A History of Developmental Evolution. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Laughlin, Robert B. 2005. A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. New York: Basic.
Laughlin, Robert B., and Pines, David. 2000. “The Theory of Everything.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of Americas 97 (1): 2831.
Lederman, Leon M., and Teresi, Dick. 1993. The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Livingstone, M. Stanley. 1968. Particle Physics: The High-Energy Frontier. New York: McGraw Hill.
Los Angeles Times . 1970. “Frenchman, Argentine, Swede Get Nobel Prizes.” 28 October, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times . 1972a. “Nobel Team's Theory Finds Practical Uses.” 21 October, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times . 1972b. “Door Ignores Physics Prize.” 21 October, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times . 1974. “Stanford Scientist and Two Britons Win Nobel Awards.”15 October, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times . 1977. “Two Americans and Briton Win Nobel Physics Prize.” 11 October, p. A2.
Los Angeles Times . 1979. “Nobel Prize for Physics, Chemistry Shared by Five.” 15 October, p. A2.
Martin, Joseph D. 2015a. “Fundamental Disputations: The Philosophical Debates that Governed American Physics, 1939–1993.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45 (3): 703757.
Martin, Joseph D. 2015b. “What's in a Name Change? Solid State Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, and Materials Science.” Physics in Perspective 17 (1): 332.
Martin, Joseph D., and Janssen, Michel. 2015. “Beyond the Crystal Maze: Twentieth-Century Physics from the Vantage Point of Solid State Physics.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45 (5): 631640.
Martínez, Alberto. 2004. “Kinematic Subtleties in Einstein's First Derivation of the Lorentz Transformations.” American Journal of Physics 72 (6): 790798.
McDonald, Kim A. 1997. “Covering Physics.” In A Field Guide for Science Writers, edited by Blum, Deborah and Knudson, Mary, 188196. New York: Oxford University Press.
Midgley, Mary. 1992. Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. London: Routledge.
Milam, Erika Lorraine. 2010. “The Equally Wonderful Field: Ernst Mayr and Organismic Biology.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40 (3): 279317.
Missner, Marshall. 1985. “Why Einstein Became Famous in America.” Social Studies of Science 15 (2): 267291.
Morus, Iwan Rhys. 2005. When Physics Became King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Newspaper Association of America. 2016. “Newspaper Circulation Volume.” (last accessed August 19, 2016).
New York Times . 1977. “2 from U.S. among 4 Nobel Science Winners.” 12 October, p. 1.
National Research Council. 1972. Physics in Perspective, vol. 2, pt. A. Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences.
Norton, John D. 2016. “How Einstein Did Not Discover.” Physics in Perspective 18 (3): 249282.
Obama, Barack. 2012. “Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 24, 2012.” The American Presidency Project, (last accessed August 2, 2016).
Orzel, Chad. 2016. “Why Isn't the Biggest Conference in Physics More Popular?” Forbes, 13 March, in-physics-more-popular (last accessed August 18, 2016).
Petrarchæ, Francesco. 1605. De Remediis utriusque Fortunae, book 2 (Ioannes le Preux), (last accessed August 2, 2016).
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1852. “The Purloined Letter.” In The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe: With Notices of His Life and Genius, vol. 1, Tales, edited by Willis, Nathaniel Parker, Lowell, James Russell, and Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, 262280. New York: Redfield.
Randall, Lisa. 2011. Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. New York: Harper Collins.
Rensberger, Boyce. 1974. “Chemist, 2 Astronomers Are Given Nobel Prizes.” New York Times, 16 October, pp. 1, 26.
Ritson, Sophie, and Camilleri, Kristian. 2015. “Contested Boundaries: The String Theory Debates and Ideologies of Science.” Perspectives on Science 23 (2): 192227.
Rochberg, Francesca. 2004. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rowland, Henry A. 1883. “A Plea for Pure Science.” Science 2 (29): 242250.
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. 2014. “New Light to Illuminate the World.” 7 October, (last accessed July 21, 2015).
Ruse, Michael. 2003. “Is Evolution a Secular Religion?Science 299 (5612): 15231524.
Schwartz, Rebecca Press. 2008. “The Making of the History of the Atomic Bomb: Henry Dewolf Smyth and the Historiography of the Manhattan Project.” PhD diss., Princeton University.
Schuster, Arthur. 1911. The Progress of Physics during 33 Years (1875–1908): Four Lectures Delivered to the University of Calcutta during March 1908. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Schweber, Sylvan S. 2015. “Hacking the Quantum Revolution: 1925–1975.” European Physics Journal H 40 (1): 53149.
Schweber, Sylvan S. 1986. “The Empiricist Temper Regnant: Theoretical Physics in the United States 1920–1950.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 17 (1): 5598.
Semple, Robert B. Jr. 1976. “Nobel Prizes Won by 3 U.S. Scientists.” New York Times, 19 October, pp. 1, 34.
Sevigny, Melissa L. 2016. Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets. Tuscon: Sentinal Peak.
Smoluchowski, Roman. 1982. Interview by Kris Szymborski (16 August), sound recording, OH 4897. Niels Bohr Library and Archives, College Park MD.
Sullivan, Walter. 1973. “Physics Prize Won for Research in Electronics.” New York Times, 24 October, p. 26.
Sullivan, Walter. 1975. “Three Physicists Unravel Mystery: Nobel Winners Showed and Explained the Asymmetry of Atomic Nucleus.” New York Times, 18 October, p. 15.
Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
United States Department of Energy. 1986a. “Congressional Budget Request: Energy Supply Research and Development.” Washington DC: US Department of Energy, (last accessed January 10, 2017).
United States Department of Energy. 1986b. “Congressional Budget Request: General Science and Research.” Washington DC: US Department of Energy, (last accessed January 10, 2017).
United States House. 1991. Establishing Priorities in Science Funding: Hearing Before the Task Force on Defense, Foreign Policy and Space of the Committee on the Budget, July 11 and 18, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., (last accessed October 26, 2017).
United States Senate. 1987. On the Department of Energy's Funding Request for the Superconducting Super Collider: Hearing Before the Subcommittee Energy on Research and Development of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, April 7, 100th Cong., 1st sess., (last accessed October 26, 2017).
United States Senate. 1989. Proposed Fiscal Year 1990 Budget Request (DOE's Office of Energy Research): Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Development of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, February 24, 101st Cong., 1st sess., (last accessed October 26, 2017).
Updike, John. 1960. “Cosmic Gall.” The New Yorker, 17 December, 36.
Updike, John. 1969. “The Dance of the Solids.” Scientific American 220 (1): 130131.
Van Vleck, John H. 1944. Letter to Saul Dushman (29 January). American Physical Society Division of Solid State Physics records of Roman Smoluchowski, 1943–1947, AR 164, Box 1, Folder 1. Niels Bohr Library and Archives, College Park MD.
Varma, Roli. 2000. “Changing Research Cultures in U.S. Industry.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 25 (4): 395416.
Weinberg, Steven. 1992. Dreams of a Final Theory. New York: Pantheon.
Weinraub, Bernard. 1970. “Three Scientists Win Nobel Prizes.” New York Times, 28 October, pp. 1, 26.
Weinraub, Bernard. 1972. “6 Americans Win Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry Fields.” New York Times, 21 October, pp. 1, 14.
Wilson, Benjamin. 2015. “The Consultants: Nonlinear Optics and the Social World of Cold War Science.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45 (5): 758804.
Zakariya, Nasser. 2012. “Making Knowledge Whole: Genres of Synthesis and Grammars of Ignorance.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42 (5): 432475.
Zangwill, Andrew. 2015. “A Half Century of Density Functional Theory.” Physics Today 68 (7): 3439.
Zhang, Yuanbo, Tan, Yan-Wen, Stormer, Horst L., and Kim, Philip. 2005. “Experimental Observation of the Quantum Hall Effect and Berry's Phase in Graphene.” Nature 438 (7065): 201204.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed