Why physicists think big - by Steve Morris (University College, 1989)

16 April 2013 by Valeria Crowder

Why physicists think big

About the author: Steve Morris read Physics at University College, Oxford and graduated in 1989 with first class honours. He spent ten years working for the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, Oxfordshire, before starting his own internet company. He writes for technology review website S21 and blogs about science in his spare time.

The billionaire property developer, Donald Trump, famously remarked, “If you're going to be thinking anything, you might as well think big.” Now, Donald Trump is no physicist, but that way of thinking, embodied by Trump’s skyscrapers, is exactly how all good physicists think.

The world of physics spans the entire physical reality, from the Planck_scale to the size of the observable universe. Physicists are quite comfortable contemplating alternative universes, additional universes and even multiverses. They are undaunted by mind-bending concepts like quantum mechanics and relativity theory, willing to regard particles as waves or even strings if it suits them, and quite at home considering the origins and destiny of the cosmos.

The reason why physicists are comfortable thinking big is that they are trained to look for universality. Why divide the laws of celestial bodies from those on Earth if universal laws of motion can describe them both? Why have separate theories of electricity and magnetism if a single electromagnetic theory is possible? Every time such leaps to universality are made, it brings us closer to true understanding of the world, and often leads to unexpected benefits. In the case of Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism, it led to the prediction of electromagnetic radiation and the realisation that light was one example of this.

For a while, towards the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that biology was poised to become the dominant science of the twenty-first century, and that all the best scientists would be drawn to it. Most of the big questions in physics seemed to have already been answered, or were simply too hard to answer in the foreseeable future. And yet in the past couple of decades there has been an explosion of creativity in physics:

• Breakthroughs in cosmology thanks partly to the Hubble telescope, turning existing models of the universe on their head.
• The construction of the Large Hadron Collider, making an experimental verification of the Higgs boson finally possible, and opening the door to studies of supersymmetry and more.
Quantum computers, originally proposed by Richard Feynman, developed theoretically by Oxford’s David Deutsch and now in commercial development by companies like IBM and D-Wave.
• Developments in nanotechnology, leading to the development of “miracle” materials like graphene, carbon nanotubes, and nanocomposites, with potential applications in nanoscale machines, exotic next-generation electronics and novel structures such as space elevators.

These ideas and discoveries are set to transform the world in the coming decades in unimaginable ways.

Physicists have a reputation for being disruptive. Because of their big-thinking habits they often push beyond the boundaries of physics into other disciplines:

• It was Erwin Schrödinger who first described theoretically how the storage of genetic information should work, inspiring Crick and Watson to identify DNA as the carrier of hereditary information.
• At a time when we are constantly being told that we must use less energy and curb our ambitions, the Russian physicist Kardashev has already mapped out our energy future. Guess what? It’s big.
• And forget about wind turbines and solar panels on your roof, if you want the ultimate in renewable energy, look to the Dyson sphere, a solar-system-scale engineering project capable of harnessing the entire energy output of the Sun, proposed by the physicist, Freeman Dyson.
• It’s no surprise to find physicists in the world of finance, creating abstract concepts like financial derivatives. The physicist Fischer Black worked with colleagues to develop the Black-Scholes equation, which spawned the derivatives market.

Universality lies at the heart of human progress. It has given us language, mathematics and science. And universality is absolutely what physicists seek.

Physics is still a fantastic subject to study, perhaps now more than ever. The subject is exploding into all kinds of new fields, as well as making rapid progress in the traditionally “glamorous” fields of particle physics and cosmology. It’s an excellent discipline for a career beyond physics too, with plenty of applications even in these difficult economic times. For instance, what high-tech start-up company has ever succeeded without a disruptive big-thinker to drive it forward?

And even if you end up working as a property developer, as Donald Trump has demonstrated, thinking big is the key to success.

This article was written by Steve Morris. Statements and opinions expressed in articles, reviews and other materials herein are those of the authors; not of the Department of Physics.
We encourage Alumni to participate and contribute to the blog with their thoughts and ideas, feel free to send them to Val Crowder - alumni@physics.ox.ac.uk

Photo: Michael Haupt.

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