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Asaf Pe'er

Physics for all

What technology will we have in the future thanks to physics?

This of course is a very tricky question, as no one can tell the future.

Let me begin by going over a very partial and subjective list of technologies that we have today that are enabled due to breakthroughs in physics in the past 150 years or so, and proceed to a few directions that to me look promising.

In the first half of the 19th century, many physicists studied thermodynamics - physics of heat, as well as the properties of gases, liquids and solids. Closely related is the investigation of the steam engine (James Watt, 1781), that led to the developments of trains, and to the industrial revolution. In the second half of the 19th century, the internal combustion engine was developed. This is the basic engine that works in cars.

During the 19th century, various physicists studied the properties of electric and magnetic fields. James Maxwell completed the theory, and showed that in fact electric and magnetic fields are two parts of the same phenomenon (1865). These studies enabled the construction of power plants (Lord Armstrong at Cragside, 1868) and the beginning of widespread use of electricity. This has drastically changed life: we cannot imagine today life without electricity.
A few examples:
- The lightbulb (Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison, 1878);
-Electric elevators, which enabled the building of houses taller than 4 stories (Werner von Siemens, 1880)
- Home refrigerator and washing machines
- Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves (first predicted by James Maxwell in 1873). Following this discovery, Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio (1894)
- Radar was fully developed by the American physicist Robert M. Page in 1934.
The Wright brothers invented the airplane in 1903. In designing the wings, they used lift equations, first developed by the physicist Daniel Bernoulli in the 18th century.
Wilhelm Rontgen discovered the X-rays (1895), which are in wide use in medicine over the last 120 years.
Studies of nuclear physics led to the construction of nuclear reactors (Enrico Fermi, 1942), followed by the development of nuclear weapons. Today, nuclear reactors produce about 20% of the electricity consumption in the USA.
Electronic computers were introduced during WWII. One of the leading pioneers of computing was the mathematician and theoretical physicist John von Neumann.
The transistor, a semiconductor device which lies in the heart of practically all electronic devices (including all computers) was invented by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in 1947.
Lasers were invented by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow in 1957.
The charged couples devices (CCDs) was invented by Willard Boyle and George E. Smith who worked in Bell labs (1969). CCDs are the key devices in digital camers, digital imaging, etc.
The global positioning system (GPS) developed in the USA in the 1980's and 1990's makes use of general-relativistic effects discovered by Albert Einstein in 1916.
The World Wide Web (WWW) was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in CERN in 1989.

To summarize this incomplete list, I can conclude that
1. Progress is not linear; sometimes it takes tens of years from the discovery of the basic principle until a wide-use application is found.
2. Most of the developments are aimed at easing people's life.

Now, let's try and see what technologies we may expect to mature in the next few decades. I can think of the following.
  • Automatic cars. Car accidents are the number one cause of death of young people (at least in the developed worlds). The technology of an automatic car, where machines will replace the driver, is rapidly maturing, and I envision it to be in wide use during our lifetime. This will not only enable much faster and efficient commuting, but much safer drives with many fewer accidents.
  • Energy storage devices. Another rapidly developing technology is the ability to store energy. While this is notoriously difficult, such a technology is currently evolving, addresing the need to find long lasting batteries for electronic devices (such as laptops and cell phones), and is essential for electric cars.
  • Green, renewable energy sources. In the past two decades, the problem of global warming became widely discussed. It is now accepted by (most of the) community that a major cause of this is human behaviour. This is combined with the fact that fossil fuels (gas, oil and coal), that are still the major source of energy worldwide, are finite, and will be exhausted one day. Thus, a major technology that I expect will be developed in the coming decades is that of green energy- more efficient solar panels, efficient ways of extracting the energy of winds and waves, etc.
  • Super strong materials. New materials, such as Graphene are both extremely light and extremely strong. Such materials could be used for a variety of applications, from construction of tall skyscrapers to very fast airplanes. Currently, most commercial airplanes are traveling at speeds slightly below the speed of sound, in order to save fuel and avoid damage to the airplane's body. New materials though may change this limitation.
  • Life on other planets. One of the most "hot" topics in astronomy today is search for extrasolar planets, namely planets that orbit other stars. Interestingly, the idea that planets that orbit other stars do exist is rooted deep in the western culture, with speculations that such planets do exist dating back to the 16th century. While the first such planet was discovered in 1992, today there are over 2000 confirmed detections. The "holy grail" in this field is currently to find planets in the "habitable zone", namely such that could support life as we understand it; in short, planets in which the conditions are such that water can exist in liquid form (namely, the planets are not too close/far from their star, not too massive, etc.). A new field of "astrobiology" had emerged in recent years, which focuses on finding signatures that could indicate the existence of life in astronomical data. In the more distant future, after such planets are found, it seems likely that ultra fast engines will be developed, that will enable mankind to physically reach such planets.
  • Climate control technology. In the past 2 decades or so, it became clear that human activity can produce or enhance global climate effects, such as global warming. Currently, efforts are aimed at reducing damage – such as reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. In the future, it is possible that technologies to reverse the effects or determine climate effects over large regions (e.g., even distribution of rain, etc.) may become available.
  • Super fast computers. Perhaps the most rapidly evolving field in the last 50 years is that of computers. Each generation of processors is much faster than the previous one. In order to achieve this, the size of electronics elements - in particular, transistors, is constantly being reduced. Already in 1965, Gordon Moore stated "Moores law", according to which the number of transistors in an integrated circuit is doubled every 18 months. Interestingly enough, this observation is still valid, 50 years after it was first proposed. However, current transistors have already reached size of approximately 10 nano-meters. At such tiny scales, the laws of quantum mechanics start to play a major role. Thus, in order to continue increasing the performance of computers, quantum mechanical effects must be considered. Another approach is the use of electro-optical devices (also known as photonics) that combine photons into integrated circuits, to achieve better performances.
  • Nano robots. Similar to computers, another rapidly evolving field is that of robotics. Miniature robots - on micro and possibly nano scales, could be used for variety of purposes. For example, nano-robots injected into the human body could be used to identify and destroy cancer cells at very early stages. Another possible application may be the detection of toxic chemicals.
  • Early identification of diseases. Often, the earlier a disease is diagnosed, the more likely it is that it can be cured or successfully managed. Already today there are some techniques for early identification of diseases, even before clinical symptoms appear. Examples are screening tests such as mammograms to find breast cancer and colonoscopy to find colon cancer. In recent years, a new field of physical biology has emerged, which combines physics-based approaches in the study of biological systems. I think that it is not hard to anticipate that in the future, early detection methods and early treatment of diseases will play a very major role in the public health system.
  • Accurate weapons. Progress in science and technology had always been closely related to progress in military technology. One of the major problems faced by (western) armies today is how to hit a particular legitimate target, while minimizing casualties amongst innocent civilians, and reducing the lateral damage to civilian facilities. This is a major issue, especially in the war against terrorism. Terrorists - who, by definition, are targeting innocent civilians - often hide behind innocent people, in order to prevent being targeted themselves. For example, terrorists in Gaza have used schools and hospitals as rocket launching sites against Israeli cities. Western armies thus put huge efforts in building and using accurate weapons, such as guided missiles in order to hit only those that should be targeted. A variety of technologies are used for that - from GPS guided missiles, electro-optic devices, night vision devices etc. This approach will continue in the future, with new technologies that will enable even more accurate guidance of missiles and bombs.
  • High temperature superconductivity. Superconductors are materials with zero electric resistivity. Thus, they are ideal for use as wires; most of the cost of electricity is due to heat losses in the wires used to carry the electric current. However, as of today, there are still no known super conductors at room temperature. In the future, if such materials are discovered, they will be of wide use.

    This is of course a very partial list. In Wikipedia there are many other examples of future technologies that may be there. You can find it here.
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