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An introduction to theoretical condensed matter physics

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Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics
1 Keble Road
Oxford, OX1 3NP
Tel: +44 (0) 1865-273999
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What is theoretical condensed matter physics, and why is it interesting?

Condensed Matter Physics is the study of the structure and behaviour of the matter that makes up most of the usual (and unusual) stuff that surrounds us every day. It is not the study of the very small (particle theory) or of the very large (astrophysics and cosmology) but of the things in between. It takes for granted that most of these are made up of electrons and nuclei interacting according to the well-established laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, and tries to explain their properties.

What makes it an interesting and fundamental branch of physics? It turns out that large assemblies of electrons and nuclei in a condensed state often exhibit so-called cooperative behaviour which is quite different from that of the individual parts. Superconductivity, for example. And the study of this new behaviour requires theoretical methods which can be every bit as sophisticated as those of particle theory or relativity. In fact, mathematically they often have a lot in common. But while there is (we hope) only one `theory of everything' which describes the building blocks of matter, at intermediate scales there are any number of `effective' theories which account for the wealth of phenomena which we observe. Thus the subject is very diverse.

In condensed matter physics, experiment and observation play a key role. As compared with particle physics, most experiments are much easier to carry out, generally much more precise, and take far less time. So the link between experiment and theory is that much stronger.

Condensed matter physics is both fast-moving and outward looking. Developments come from fresh theoretical ideas, from ideas transplanted to a novel context, and from (sometimes serendipitous) experimental discoveries. Some of these developments involve topics at the interface between condensed matter physics and other fields - examples include atomic physics and biology.

Condensed matter physics is also very important because it often uncovers phenomena which are technologically important. As well as solid state devices, the whole field of polymers, complex fluids and other so-called `soft' condensed matter systems has all sorts of applications. More recently, the methods which condensed matter theorists use to study interacting systems with many degrees of freedom have been used to attack problems in such diverse fields as economics and the life sciences.

As a study in itself, as well as being a sound basis for any career where quantitative skills and problem-solving are at a premium, an apprenticeship in condensed matter theory is fascinating and invaluable.