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Is condensed-matter physics becoming more materials-oriented? Or is this just a new wrinkle in an old tradition?

Condensed-matter physics is becoming increasingly oriented towards materials science and engineering. That's the conclusion reached by two physicists, Michael Shulman and Marc Warner, after analysing the statistics of abstracts for the main annual (March) meeting of the American Physical Society since 2007 (http://arxiv.org/abs/1502.03103). They enumerated key words used in abstracts to identify trends over the past eight years, and say that during this time the words that are increasing in popularity are often ones associated with specific types of material system, such as 'layer', 'thin', 'organic', 'oxide' and indeed 'material'. In contrast, words or (word fragments) with generally declining popularity include 'superconduct' and 'flux' (as well as, oddly, 'science').

What should we make of this? Probably not too much. As the authors are the first to point out, the analysis is preliminary and its time span limited. It would be good to see it extended over a longer period and expanded to include, say, words in the abstracts of publications in Physical Review Letters, not to mention paying more attention to soft matter rather than primarily solid-state. The present results also paint a slightly confusing picture, taken at face value: condensed-matter physics as a whole has been expanding if one judges from the gradual rise in the total number of abstracts submitted to condensed-matter physics sessions of the March meeting, yet the 'condensed matter' section of the preprint server arXiv has made up a shrinking proportion of the total during that time. There are various possible explanations for the discrepancy.

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