Editorial – Insignificant details, pleasure and discovery

By . Published on 26 May 2015 in:
May 2015, ,

Marcel Proust, the great French writer, is best known for his book À la recherche du temps perdu. Memories take the central role in the novel, where apparently insignificant details prove to be the most important. A well-known scene is when a madeleine cake allows the narrator to experience the past completely, as a whole, in resonance with his present existence. Marcel Proust showed, though his wonderful writing, that recognising the importance of apparently insignificant details is a source of pleasure and happiness.

Madeleine cakes | Image credit: Bernard Leprêtre via Wikimedia Commons
The real madeleine cakes…

Recognising the importance of apparently insignificant details together with curiosity can also be driving forces of great discoveries in science. The discovery and interpretation of superconductivity is an illustrative example. Indeed, it took a long time to identify the subtle mechanism allowing the coupling of electron pairs over a range of hundreds of nano-meters, orders of magnitude larger than the lattice spacing, which is the basis of the theory put forward in the mid-fifties to explain low temperature superconductivity. I learnt as a young student that, based on the BCS theory, superconductivity would be only limited to low temperature regimes. Then, I still remember as a fascinating event the discovery of high temperature superconductors in the mid-eighties, whose underlying subtle mechanism still remains as an open mystery today.  Although we are still waiting for the identification of the missing details to explain high temperature superconductivity, the development of their technological applications is growing, promoting the technological dimension of physics and the interplay between basic and applied science.

James Joyce, one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century, has put so many enigmas in his books that they will keep readers busy for years arguing over what he really meant. That is an efficient way of ensuring one’s immortality in artistic activities. On the contrary, the best strategy to succeed in science should be based in our capability to explain the laws of nature in a transparent way. Actually this was the case with the authors of BCS theory that got the Nobel Prize in Physics for the transparent way that they explained the long standing enigma of low temperature superconductivity and, I believe, this will also be the case of scientists working on the underlying mechanisms to explain high temperature superconductors today. In spite of this difference, with science trying to make difficult things understandable and poetry stating simple things in an incomprehensible way (cf. Dirac), long time scales are usually involved to reveal the importance of insignificant facts in both universes; a whole life to amplify emotions using everyday details, as in Proust´s madeleine, or tens of years, even a century, to address main scientific conundrums as superconductivity.

I think that those are some convincing reasons to pay attention to the importance of apparently insignificant events as source of pleasure and happiness in our life and discoveries in our research activity. Apparently insignificant details can open up whole new worlds that have never been seen before.

Carlos Hidalgo,
member of the EPS Executive Committee

Read previous post:
EPS Distinctions 2015

The 2015 Gero Thomas Medal for outstanding contribution to the European Physical Society was awarded to Gerardo Delgado Barrio, from Madrid, Spain for commitment to the EPS in the fields of international scientific cooperation, outreach and education, and physics for development.
As a member of the EPS Executive Committee from 2001 until 2006, G. Delgado Barrio opened up communications channels to Latin America, notably through the creation of the Federation of Latin American Physical Societies. This allowed the development of EPS activities for physics for development. G. Delgado Barrio