Physics provides a model for understanding the nature and interactions of all matter, energy and fundamental forces in our universe, yet the role it serves in modern society can easily seem unclear. Whether it’s because the mathematical language it uses is alienating or a result of the often abstract concepts, many people think that physics gives us nothing, bemoaning the heaps of money haemorrhaged into the discipline each year. However, much of the technology we rely on today is directly taken from the study, and without it our prospects for the future would be exponentially darker.
The most obvious role of physics in modern society is to aid us in developing new technologies, such as the computer. Physicists did the all-important research on the semi-conductor, a special type of material used to make transistors. These are essentially the key components of computer chips, which allows the electronic devices you own to store and process information. Likewise, physics’ discovery of superconductors has spawned the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, an integral device in modern medicine. The PET (positron emission tomography) scan wouldn’t exist without research on anti-matter, and your GPS would consistently show the wrong time without Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Developments in physics drive the production of better technology.
The Nobel Prize in Economics in 2004 was won by Edward Prescott and Finn Kydland for showing that new technologies create booms in the economy. Because of the aforementioned link between physics and technology, it’s clear that work done in the field of physics will indirectly stimulate the economy. With nations around the world contending with the nightmarish financial climate, the positive impact of physics-inspired technologies is significant and invaluable.
Informing other sciences
Physics has been referred to as the fundamental science, because it strives to understand the universe from the subatomic scale right up to the astronomical scale. The reactions of chemistry would never occur without the electromagnetic behaviour of atoms, and the complex biochemistry that allowed life to flourish is equally dependent on it. In this way, developments in physics inform other sciences and heighten their understanding of their disciplines, leading to them advance more rapidly.
Solving world problems
Breakthroughs in technology can enable us to solve world problems. For example, the discovery of the photovoltaic cell allows sunlight to be transformed into electric energy inside solar panels, which could theoretically provide us with a long-term supply of renewable energy. Physics has already provided us with the technology we need to remove our reliance on the planet’s finite supply of fossil fuels, and future advances will undoubtedly provide solutions for other issues which face humanity such as global warming.
Understanding of the universe
There are a plethora of practical applications for physics, but the biggest role it serves in modern society doesn’t have a direct, concrete application like an MRI machine. Humans are inherently curious creatures, and it’s this curiosity which drives the entire field of science. Physics provides us with more answers to the big questions we all struggle with throughout our lives and deepens our understanding of the universe we live in. Understanding that every single atom in your body was forged in a stellar explosion doesn’t really enable us to do anything useful, but it’s a part of human nature to be interested in things like what we’re actually made from and what makes the stars shine. Physics’ primary role is to provide accurate answers to the most enduring of questions.
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