"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.
1. DEVELOPING QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES:
"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."
2. UNDERSTANDING COMPLEX SYSTEMS:
"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."
3. APPLYING PHYSICS TO BIOLOGY:
"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
4. CREATING NEW MATERIALS:
"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."
5. EXPLORING THE UNIVERSE:
"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."
6. UNIFYING THE FORCES OF NATURE:
"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
http://books.nap.edu/books/0309073421/html/index.html. The previously-published,
subdiscipline-specific reports are also available on the Board's web
site, at http://www.national-academies.org/bpa/reports.
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics