ars technica | Nobel Intent | 14 June 2010
Quick, out behind the bike shed, Professors Pendry and Leonhardt are having a fight over a completely hypothetical situation. If we hurry, we should catch the end of round three. Science: it is exactly like that all the time. It's just that, most of the time, the participants keep their disapproval of each other much more hidden.
So what am I talking about? The story takes place in an area of physics that has been long-neglected: friction. Everyone knows it exists, engineers have a bunch of empirical formulas to calculate it, but no one gave much thought to what actually causes friction. Physicists started to pay serious attention about 10 years ago and, since that time, a lot of heat seems to have been generated. There seems to be considerable disagreement between physicists at the moment, with each having their own pet theory, their own predictions, and absolutely nothing in the way of experimental data to back any of them up.
Our protagonists are two theoretical physicists, one at Imperial College London and the other at St. Andrews in Scotland. The heart of their disagreement boils down to trying to decide what happens in a seemingly simple situation. Imagine two perfectly smooth plates of material at a temperature of absolute zero, sitting in a perfect vacuum. The plates are separated from each other by a small distance and one is moving past the other at a constant rate. The big question: do these plates experience friction?
The answer, according to a 2009 New Journal of Physics article1 by Philbin and Leonhardt, is no.
This obviously aroused a bit of suspicion, because Pendry wrote a response to the same journal earlier this year, entitled "Quantum friction—fact or fiction2." In this paper, which on occasion drips with sarcastic malice, Pendry focuses on the charges and their behavior.
End of story, right? Wrong.
Leonhardt was obviously pretty ticked off at Pendry, because he penned a poisonous reply3. In his comment on Pendry's article, Leonhardt takes issue with the title, the perceived claim of an exact solution, and, finally, the physics.
Pendry has, of course, responded4.
What's next? I suspect there will be the odd tense moment the next time these two meet at a conference. If I had to guess, I would say that Pendry's view will win out in the end, but the real point is that this sort of aggressive argumentation is what real science is like. It's just that usually the protagonists hide it a lot better.
1 No quantum friction between uniformly moving plates
- New Journal of Physics, Volume 11, March 2009, DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/11/3/033035
- New Journal of Physics, Volume 12, March 2010, DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/12/3/033028
- New Journal of Physics, Volume 12, June 2010, DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/12/6/068001
- New Journal of Physics, Volume 12, June 2010, DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/12/6/068002