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FYI Number 90: July 19, 2001

NRC Report Identifies Priority Areas for Physics Research

"Physics matters because it stands where wonder about the workings of the world meets our most practical demands. Like quicksilver, physics darts this way and that through the tangle of disciplines, making connections, building instruments, explaining why things work." - Physics in a New Era: An Overview

A ten-year effort to survey the field of physics and to identify directions and priorities for the new decade has culminated in a recent report by the National Research Council's Physics Survey Overview Committee.

"Precisely because physics is everywhere, from computer printers, copying machines, and laser-driven checkout counters to precision weapons, surgical instruments, airplane surfaces, and medical diagnostics, it is a tall order to survey the whole of it,"

the authors remark. The committee produced a number of subdiscipline-specific volumes during its survey, and these then served as the foundation for the recent 182-page report, "Physics in a New Era: An Overview."

The "Overview" report encompasses research from "the unimaginably small length scale of 10-33 cm"of string theory to "the domain of cosmic sizes beyond planets and stars." It states,

"at all distance scales, physicists are attacking challenging problems, and as they deploy new instruments, novel concepts and deeper puzzles emerge.... No one area dominates the whole, as astronomers, optical physicists, and string theorists all grapple with a vast new array of unfamiliar objects to study and an altered landscape of collaboration, along with shared instruments and techniques."

One area emphasized in the report is the collaboration between physics and biotechnology, ranging from medical imaging to irradiating tumors to understanding the mechanisms of protein folding. The uses of physics for national security and defense are also highlighted, including "cryptography, remote sensing, precision warfare, missile defense, and the development of new materials." The report continues, "the economic fruits of physics research are visible all around us.... New forms of wireless and optical technologies are shifting the way we compute, communicate, and store information."The report also finds physicists working "on Wall Street as techniques born in the study of physical systems begin to play an important role in examining the dynamics of stocks, bonds, options, and hedge funds."

"It is the constant exchange between understanding and application, between civilian and military, between university- and industry-based research,"the report states, "that marks physics at the beginning of the 21st century. To prepare for the coming years in which this constant realignment of physics will no doubt continue, our older expectations of education, funding, and international cooperation all need to be reassessed."To this end, the committee identified six areas of priority for research, and put forth nine recommendations. The six high- priority areas, or "grand challenges,"are provided below, with selected explanatory quotes from the report, in no specific order of preference. The next FYI will highlight the committee's recommendations.


"The ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules will lead to new quantum technologies with applications ranging from the development of new materials to the analysis of the human genome. This ability allows the direct engineering of quantum probabilities.... A new generation of technology will be developed with construction and operation entirely at the quantum level. Measurement instruments of extraordinary sensitivity, quantum computation, quantum cryptography, and quantum-controlled chemistry are likely possibilities."


"Theoretical advances and large-scale computer modeling will enable phenomena as complicated as the explosive death of stars and the properties of complex materials to be understood.... Problems that may soon be rendered tractable include the strong nuclear force, turbulence and other nonlinear phenomena in fluids and plasmas, the origin of large-scale structure in the universe, and a variety of quantum many-body challenges in condensed-matter, nuclear, atomic, and biological systems."


"Because all essential biological mechanisms ultimately depend on physical interactions between molecules, physics lies at the heart of the most profound insights into biology.... Current challenges include the biophysics of cellular electrical activity underlying the functioning of the nervous system, the circulatory system, and the respiratory system; the biomechanics of the motors responsible for all biological movement; and the mechanical and electrical properties of DNA and the enzymes essential for cell division and all cellular processes."


"Novel materials will be discovered, understood, and employed widely.... Several themes and challenges are apparent - the synthesis, processing, and understanding of complex materials composed of more and more elements; the role of molecular geometry and motion in only one or two dimensions; the incorporation of new materials and structures in existing technologies; the development of new techniques for materials synthesis, in which biological processes such as self-assembly can be mimicked; and the control of a variety of poorly understood, nonequilibrium processes (e.g. turbulence, cracks, and adhesion) that affect material properties."


"New instruments through which stars, galaxies, dark matter, and the Big Bang can be studied in unprecedented detail will revolutionize our understanding of the universe, its origin, and its destiny.... New measurements will test the foundations of cosmology and help determine the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95 percent of the mass-energy of the universe. Gravitational waves may be directly detected.... Questions such as the origin of the chemical elements and the nature of extremely energetic cosmic accelerators will be understood more deeply."


"Experiment and theory together will provide a new understanding of the basic constituents of matter.... During the next decade the unknown physics responsible for elementary particle masses and other properties will begin to reveal itself in experiments at a new generation of high-energy colliders. Possibilities range from the discovery of new and unique elementary particles to more exotic scenarios involving fundamental changes in our description of space and time."

The new report, "Physics in a New Era: An Overview," can be read online on the web site of the Board on Physics and Astronomy, at The previously-published, subdiscipline-specific reports are also available on the Board's web site, at

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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