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23 November 2015

What is the future of physics?

If we are to see another technological leap like the one James Clerk Maxwell’s equations made possible, it will need to involve new physics. What might that look like?

By Michael Brooks

When we think about the future, we usually define it in terms of technology: jet-packs, shiny silver suits and flying cars, for instance. And yet technology is built on innovations in fundamental science. Our predictions, therefore, need to note where science is going.

That is why physicists came together for a meeting at the Royal Society on 16 and 17 November. First, they were celebrating 150 years of Maxwell’s equations. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell used the experimental work of Michael Faraday and others to create a theory uniting electricity and magnetism. In doing so, he laid the bedrock for 20th-century physics, including relativity and, indirectly, quantum theory. As such, Maxwell’s equations are the basis of almost all the technology we use today.

However, the meeting’s main focus was the future, not the past. If we are to see another technological leap like the one Maxwell’s equations made possible, it will need to involve new physics. So, what might that look like?

A major theme is unification. Where Maxwell united electricity and magnetism to create his electromagnetic theory and explain the nature of light, physicists are now working to pull all the forces of physics into one overarching framework. The electroweak force, for instance, has united electromagnetism with the weak force that governs interactions between particles in an atomic nucleus. We have yet to find how these are linked with the strong force, which binds the quarks that lie inside the nuclear particles.

One of the speakers at the Royal Society was the Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, who considers the quarks, and the gluons that mediate their influence, to be a possible source of future tech. Going sub-nuclear opens up the possibility of high-density energy storage that could, for example, produce superior batteries. The way gluons interact with each other also allows scope for something beyond the laser that would operate at phenomenally higher energy levels. Wilczek has said that such things are “speculative, but not outrageously so”.

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Future tech might even come as the result of finding new particles, forces and structures in the subatomic world. The discoveries made so far, culminating in the discovery of the Higgs boson, have given us a complete “standard model” of physics. Now, we are looking beyond it for greater understanding – and maybe a new set of technological tools.

Cern’s Large Hadron Collider will be central, but not all the answers will come from big machines. Researchers working in the field known as quantum optics are using tricks such as trapping a single electron in nanometre-sized pieces of silicon and manipulating it with light to tease out its undiscovered properties. At the Royal Society meeting, Bristol University’s Ruth Oulton presented a catalogue of surprises from this research, any one of which might give us the next leap forward.

In the end, that’s pretty much all one can say. We can only talk about what is being done now. As we probed the atom, we got lasers, electronic computers and fission reactors, and the technological changes they ushered in took us all by surprise. So how can we expect to have an accurate idea of what will come out of the experiments being planned at the moment?

It’s difficult to predict what lies in the future. It’s even tougher when you don’t yet understand the physics that will take you there.

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror