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Check your comprehension. ~ Which other important constants would be fixed after a redefinition of the kilogram?

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~ Which other important constants would be fixed after a redefinition of the kilogram?

~ Will fears of damaging or contaminating a single master reference standard remain after a redefinition of the kilogram?

Unit 5

The importance of physics: breakthroughs drive economy, quality of life

By MICHAEL PRAVICA
SPECIAL TO THE REVIEW-JOURNAL

 

The year 2005 has been designated the World Year of Physics to recognize physics as a foundation of not only science, but also society. The designation coincides with the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's "miraculous year" of 1905, during which he published papers on the theory of relativity, quantum theory and the theory of Brownian motion, ideas that have profoundly influenced all of modern physics. We are deeply indebted to generations of physicists for the world we understand, our security, our livelihoods and our economic prowess.

The fruits resulting from the sacrifices of these intellectual giants are ubiquitous, yet too often taken for granted. Many of our leaders no longer seem to respect or abide by the opinions of scientists, and yet they depend on the technology developed by scientists. They frequently make decisions without understanding nature, the technology we all use, and the planet-wide consequences of abusing technology.

In addition, these leaders are reducing investment in scientific research, as evident in the recent budget reduction for the National Science Foundation, which will ultimately reduce our competitiveness by frustrating our capacity to innovate and develop novel technology that is mostly initiated from scientific research.

Physics endeavors to understand the underlying laws governing our universe. By better understanding those laws, we can better interact with and harness our environment. To gain perspective into how much physics has contributed to our livelihoods, consider the following miracles from physicists: alternating current, hydroelectric power, electric motors, radio, microwave ovens, satellites, radar, modern rocketry, the solution of the DNA structure, nuclear magnetic resonance, magnetic resonance imaging, X-rays, lasers, transistors, light-emitting diodes, oscilloscopes, television, holography, and the World Wide Web (originally developed for high-energy physicists), among many others. Physicists studying fundamental natural principles, such as quantum mechanics, often invented new devices by applying these principles serendipitously or by design.

Examples of this are the transistor (miniature switch/amplifier) and diode (one-way switch), used in electronic watches, calculators, pacemakers, hearing aids, cellular phones, global positioning systems, radios, computers and LEDs. They are fundamental building blocks upon which our entire society is constructed. Applications of the laser (an optical amplifier) include bar code readers, micro/eye surgery, compact disc players and information retrieval and storage, fiber optics (most modern phone lines and medical aids use this), machining, surveying, laser printers, semiconductor fabrication, holography, and perhaps the greatest potential use, fusion.

Nuclear magnetic resonance identifies chemical species in chemistry and biology. Magnetic resonance imaging is an extension of NMR that has been vital for noninvasive glimpses into the body to find tumors, study thinking processes and understand blood flow based upon the precession of protons in a magnetic field.

The insatiable human quest for knowledge and understanding of the natural world leads to scientific theories. From these theories, new technology is created that, in turn, allows more accurate, expanded and novel experimental observations to prove or disprove theories (for example, the telescope). Thus, there is a deep symbiosis between discovery in physics (and the rest of science) and new technology.

We all benefit from the priceless contributions of physics; a small number of them are mentioned here. Economists Edward C. Prescott and Finn E. Kydland won the 2004 Nobel Prize for economics in part for pointing out that new technology drives booms in economies. Contributions from physics generate many trillions of dollars for the world economy and aid our existence immeasurably.

Only science, with physics as its foundation, can solve many of the impending crises facing our society, such as global warming, overpopulation, waning energy and other natural resources, and the poisoning of our planet. Our leaders need to consult scientists in their decision making. There should be more recognition and celebration of the importance of science and scientific research by our business, social and political leaders. The public should seek leaders who are better versed in science.

Scientists need to be more vocal and strive to explain science and its deep relevance to humanity. And students should take more science courses and learn about the physical world we live in.

Now, more than ever, we need to resurrect respect and strong support for science.


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