Quick! Which would you rather read about today:
2) Condensed Matter Physics
3) Felix Flicker
I’d suggest Door Number Four, “All the above, and more.”
Magic is the easy one – at first glance, anyway.
Most of us would cast only a passing glance at physics. What even is “condensed matter” physics and how much do we need to know about it?
This brings us to Door Number Three.
Felix Flicker merits more than a glance. His name may conjure a comic book villain, but he is a brilliant theoretical physicist who teaches at Cardiff University in Wales.
Flicker asserts that magic is very much present in our everyday lives and that it is called condensed matter physics. Without it, we wouldn’t have radio, phones, computers, the internet, LED lights, and the world as we know it.
“I have written a book aimed at introducing condensed matter physics to a broad audience,” he explains at his website. “It is written as a manual for wizards.”
Yes, you read that right.
The Magick of Physics
In the UK, it’s The Magick of Matter: Crystals, Chaos and the Wizardry of Physics (Profile Books, 2022), and in the US and Canada, it’s The Magick of Physics: Uncovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life (Simon and Schuster, 2023).
Magick, with a K?
Only in the title. In the text, it’s magic.
(Aleister Crowley put the “k” in magick in the 20th century to distinguish it from stage magic, which involves sleight of hand and audience misdirection. )
“The modern name for magic is physics,” Flicker keeps saying (and yes, I believe he does know the meaning of that word), and “by the close of the book I hope you will agree that the real world is as magical as the most enchanting tales it contains.”
Now, for the hard part: Science “has been the preserve of a small elite,” Flicker says, “but anyone can learn physics.”
Even me? #disagree
People tend to think “mathematical skill is something you are either born with or not. I can personally attest to you that this is not the case: it is learned with practice,” Flicker writes.
The ways of math are beyond me, but call them “magic” and promise that even I can learn a little, and I’ll keep reading.
Flicker speaks so easily and enthusiastically of things like “quantum entanglement” and “special relativity.” A small number of brilliant people know what this stuff means. They are part of a high priesthood of science. People like me just have to trust them.
That troubles me. It reminds me of a verse I was indoctrinated with from infancy:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways.” –Isaiah 55:8-9
The ways of math are as unfathomable to me as the ways of the Lord. Math rules the universe! (I have my doubts about “God” at the helm of any part of our world.)
The enmity between math and me seems as deeply ingrained as the Biblical enmity between Eve and the serpent. Equations make me squirm. (But I love spiders and snakes.)
Speaking of Eve, I say she was framed. Eve bargained for knowledge, but the one thing she apparently learned was that she and Adam were naked. Now that’s a raw deal. For the price of Eden, humans should be born with innate math and language skills. Birds hatch knowing how to build nests. Beavers don’t attend a trade school to learn how to build dams.
But me, even with an arsenal of videos and books, and a relentless, masochistic urge to KNOW, will finally just write this book review even though I cannot summarize, coherently, the insights and wonders in The Magick of Physics.
I get this part: most of the magical properties of the world around us can be explained by the laws of physics. Flicker uses examples from everyday life, as well as from science fiction and fantasy, to illustrate his points.
In the past, people used magic to explain phenomena that they could not understand through science. These days, we understand many of these phenomena in a more empirical, methodical, technical, and verifiable way. Flicker discusses the relationship between magic and science, and he argues that the two are not as different as they may seem. His focus is a study of the physical properties of matter in its condensed phases.
You can see the mild-mannered, earnest, and impassioned Felix Flicker in the lecture hall in a You-Tube video, The Physics of Magnetic Monopoles (17/2/20). He sports a Victorian suit with a tilting bow tie and long, dark hair. Looking cool and calm, with a voice as soothing and reassuring as Mr. Rogers, but with a UK accent, he speaks of magnets, mysteries, the magic of piezoelectric crystals, and more.
In a second video, “The Magic of Physics,” the producers include a breezy little definition of condensed matter physics: It is the study of the world around us – the states of matter, how they emerge from the quantum realm, and how they can manifest exotic particles which cannot exist in the vacuum of space. It is one of science’s best-kept secrets: a third of all physicists work on it, yet its story has rarely been told. This talk was recorded at the Ri on 1 November 2022.
Is this Flicker character a marketing guru, all style versus substance?
No. He is the genuine article.
He is quick to credit others for their contributions. He engages with his students. He makes self-deprecating jokes. Nothing about him seems pretentious, pompous, or condescending. Like a 21st Century Carl Sagan, he speaks eloquently and with such conviction about the most complicated realms of science.
We need more teachers like him.
Flicker reminds me of my 1977 copy of Dragons of Eden, in which Ray Bradbury is quoted on the book cover: “The number of scientists who can speak in clear tongues and occasionally touch on near-poetry is small….To these names now add: Carl Sagan. Would that we could clone a dozen more like him in the next half-century.”
Add “Felix Flicker” to that pantheon. And get a TV series to bring the magic of physics to the masses. If my high school physics teacher had been more like Felix Flicker, I might not have dropped out after the first quarter before that D- could go on my report card.
Math is true. Math is universal.
“Once you understand a piece of mathematics, you understand it in exactly the same way as anyone else who understands it, regardless of what language you speak,” Flicker reminds us. “Two plus two equals four however you write it.”
Don’t try to tell me otherwise. I believe! Math = Truth.
Zoology is the study of animals.
Botany is the study of plants.
What is physics the study of?
“Perhaps the best answer is that physics is defined not so much by the set of phenomena studied, but rather by a distinctive approach and set of tools,” Flicker explains. The tools are experiment, numerics, and theory.
“Theoretical physics often comes close to mathematics; the difference enters via the gap between the mathematical model – perfect and predictable – and reality, the messy world we experience. Theoretical physics is the storytelling we do to make the mathematical model more intuitive.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I paused, backed up, and listened again to the videos (there is now a third one, set at Harvard) – and how many times I have revisited the book.
“Magic is the ability of the world to inspire us.”
If a medieval peasant could time travel to our world, everything would look like sorcery or magic. Laser beams, remote controls, rocket ships, TVs, you know the litany of wonders.
Does it matter if I’ll never understand it? No more than it matters that most of us do not understand the working of the internal combustion engine, but we drive cars and rely on the skills and tools of others to keep them road-worthy.
“I did make sure to include some more advanced topics, so that everyone gets something from it,” Flicker tells a Reddit group. “For example, the fractional quantum Hall effect is often not covered in undergraduate textbooks, but I did what I could to explain it.”
That’s another thing I will have to revisit in my Kindle, but I probably didn’t highlight the Hall effect. I’m still hung up on the maddening mystery of Peredur’s sheep and how it illustrates the behavior of quantum particles. Not to mention the three crows delivering marbles to three towers, which leads to three pages of formulas on the odds of three separate friends guessing which hand of a trickster in each tower holds the marble.
Even the “easier” subjects elude me.
How do Peredur’s sheep illustrate the Isling model?
Does the mosh pit of a rock concert similarly manifest emergence?
“Hidden Variables” is the apparent explanation for three friends in three separate towers making the same guesses: is the marble in the left hand, or the right, of the visitor to the tower? The odds are always 50/50 of guessing correctly, right?
Not if the odds of a correct guess are affected by the choices made by the other guessers. If these guessers were in the same room, hearing each other’s guesses, it would make sense that their own guesses are influenced.
But these people are in three separate towers. They do not hear the other guesses. Left hand, or right? How does anyone come up with pages of formulas for supposedly random statistics?
I consulted my husband’s textbooks and learned this: the probability that I would pass high school physics today is still zero.
You will never see me wearing those T-shirts with Maxwell’s equations. I’m so irked by equations I will not even hyperlink an image of Maxwell’s maddening shirts.
Back to the topic that set me off: how do the “local hidden variables” of quantum mechanics quantify our personal lack of knowledge?
I’ve read this chapter three times or more, but I never get past my annoyance with the moon, the marbles, the ravens, and the weird “night washers” of Celtic folklore cleaning the shrouds of the dead. This is one case where fictionalizing physics just obfuscated the lesson. Call me irremediable.
Blame the serpent. Blame Eve.
Or not. The Garden of Eden is just a story, not an explanation for why life is such a struggle.
A reader at Amazon UK included this disclaimer:
Unless we read a book, fully engaged with it, for a second time we hardly remember any of it, if anything at all. So does it really matter if we don’t understand the science although we feel we do as we read? Because it is full of wonder – tinglingly sometimes – if you are open to it.
I’m so open to it, my brain cells are falling out the portals and into the dirt.
Never mind my frustration: THE MAGICK OF PHYSICS is a GREAT BOOK!
If you won’t take my word for it, you might trust this Vimeo video review by Nobel-winner Fritz Kapra:
“The Magick of Matter” is a fascinating, enlightening and altogether delightful book. Once you fall under its spell, you will find it hard to put it down. – Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics (1975), which inspired dozens of popular books on quantum physics, string theory, cosmology, black holes, and other far-flung phenomena.
“A lively book,” yes, offering “a host of truly exotic materials.” To name just a few:
- Superfluids climbing walls of containers.
- Spin ice – a new type of magnetism – promises a huge increase in efficiency and effectiveness.
- Topological matter – materials structures with large-scale entanglements between their parts – intertwine like the ribbons of maypole dances.
Capra notes “lots of stuff that makes your head spin,” yet “Flicker’s language is not highly technical,” and he “playfully and skillfully uses traditional terms of magic from fantasy and sci-fi.”
Each chapter opens with a fictional heroine, Veryan. Kapra calls it “quite a tour de force.”
I side with Kapra here, not science writer Brian Clegg, who publishes books and blogs at a site called “Popular Science” which apparently has zero connection to the magazine by that name. Clegg objects to the ways Flicker “regularly brings magic and woo in to give us reference points as he talks about physics … the whole point of the book should be that this topic doesn’t need gimmicks. It’s genuinely interesting in its own right. Why, oh why?”
Flicker tells us why in The Guardian:
“Some people don’t like science, or are told from a young age that it’s not for them, whereas everyone is interested in magic to some degree. By emphasising that connection, I thought there might be a way for a broader range of people to become interested in science.”
Kapra gets it. He calls Flicker’s book “a lucid review of extraordinary phenomena associated with the well-known states of matter,” which correspond well with the four classics of Greek philosophy. All these properties are emergent. I think this means they emerge out of a large number of atoms and molecules, but don’t quote me on that.
Math is magical. I learned this in the early 1970s when our sixth-grade teacher showed us Donald in Mathmagic Land, a film I should have seen in first grade, but that is a dark chapter we need not visit here and now.
Why, oh why, don’t more teachers inspire us with the magic of math?
The long, long chapter dedicated to crystals – “a natural embodiment of magic” – reminds us that gems are pulled from the dirt. They come with flat surfaces and geometric edges. They can be transparent, opaque, translucent (milky, dusty), or dull. They can light the dark, or fluoresce in neon. We can generate piezoelectricity by squeezing (Greek, ‘piez-“) a crystal – and this happens whenever we start an engine (don’t quote me on that) or turn the dial to ignite a gas stove.
Coincidentally, while reading and rereading this Magick of Physics stuff, I came across a guy on ebay selling The Wands of Horus. The “science” behind these wands of the ancient Egyptians sounded enough like Flicker’s physics, I invested $75 (including tax and S&H) on a pair of wands (copper in the right hand, zinc in the left).
Yes, I really did.
That was another reason I have taken so long to write a review of this book. If I wait for signs of the wands having any efficacy, you’ll never hear from me in this lifetime, so let us pass over in silence the idea the science of calcite crystals in our pineal gland that help us, um, well, they can help shamans and monks, who somehow tap into the piezoelectric crystals in their pineal glands as a transmitter to pick up susceptible frequencies from the environment, and from there, receiving and sending messages by the spirit.
Telepathy. Physics. Magic.
Nowhere does Felix Flicker advise the use of crystals to open the portals of our brains to telepathy or magic. His brain is apparently wired for this stuff without any “assists” that we know of.
So, I’ve stood barefoot at sunset gripping those Wands of Horus, trying to clear my head, and I also acquired a peach adventurine pendant which “enhances intellectual power,” but so far, this is pretty much all that I can recite from memory from this book:
Solids = earth
Liquid = water (the only liquid that can also appear as a solid, ice, or gas, steam)
Air = gas
Fire = plasma (nope, can’t explain)
Glass = somewhere between a solid and liquid
Oh. And this:
Liquid crystals are used in computers and TV screens, and if we ever manage to create superconductors at room temperature, some heavy magic will begin.
There! That’s how smart I am after some exposure to Felix Flicker, the Wands of Horus, and an adventurine pendant that I stopped wearing after one week.
Backing up a bit, to something Flicker wrote about
The room-temperature superconductor …
That’s probably the most pressing topic in condensed matter physics. Superconductors are one of the main routes to trying to make quantum computers. But also, they conduct electricity perfectly with no loss. If you built power lines out of them, you would eliminate the [loss] of energy as electricity travels down the lines. It isn’t a total pipe dream. Superconductors are starting to be employed to connect up bigger power networks to balance the load across them.
No, I cannot summarize that off the top of my head, but give me a few more months of practice, and I might internalize at least that bit about superconductors from this multifarious, multifaceted book.
Overall, The Magick of Physics is well-written, endearing, and engaging. Flicker is a gifted storyteller. His book brims over like the phases of boiling water (shrimp bubbles, fish bubbles, then raging torrent, a chapter you don’t want to miss).
I’ll bet none of his detractors could rock a Victorian tweed suit and bow tie like Flicker does.
This man of many talents also teaches kung fu and was a champion of shuai jiao (Chinese wrestling) and praying mantis kung fu.
But I will stop here, lest I sound like I’m fangirling. (I am, of course; I just don’t want to sound like a fangirl.)
“The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things.” – Hans Christian Andersen