APS News

NAS Publishes Survey of "Physics in a New Era"

Editor's Note: This story was written for APS News by Jordan Raddick.

Thomas Appelquist
Thomas Appelquist
"There is an awful lot of exciting stuff going on in physics," said Thomas Appelquist of Yale University, chairperson of the committee that wrote "Physics in a New Era," a report just published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as a decennial "State of Physics" address. The report profiles the frontiers of American physics research and outlines recommendations for physics policy. It is now available from NAS, and will be officially introduced at a press conference this month in Washington, DC.

The physics overview committee comprised of 14 physicists from around the country, who worked for two years to produce the report. "What we try to do with these reports is to identify and articulate the consensus of the community," said Donald Shapero, director of the Board of Physics and Astronomy at the NAS. The committee met with the heads of federal funding agencies, and sought advice from APS members. "We got a lot of substantive and thoughtful responses [from APS members]," Appelquist said. The committee reviewed physics research, and evaluated how physics has changed over the past ten years.

The report focused on four "frontiers" of physics research - quantum manipulation, complex systems, the structure of the universe, and fundamental symmetries. In particular, the report concluded that new tools and techniques have revolutionized astrophysics and cosmology. "We are in the middle of a golden age in that field," Appelquist said.

However, one of the biggest changes in the way physics is done in the last ten years has come from the ease of electronic communication. "The Los Alamos archive and e-mail have speeded up scientific communication tremendously," Shapero said. In February, Brookhaven National Laboratory announced new measurements of the muon magnetic moment. A few days later, two theoretical papers appeared on the Los Alamos archive - one from a senior theorist at Brookhaven, and one from a researcher in India. "That would have been inconceivable fifteen years ago," Appelquist said. "It's an astonishing globalization."

The committee examined the role of physics in society and developed nine recommendations for physics policy in the next ten years. They recommend that federal physics funding, relative to GDP, should be increased to its early-1980s level, and that the US help lead international collaborations to build experimental facilities. They also recommend that more attention should be paid to physics education, from elementary to graduate school. "Undergraduate education is badly in need of revamping and improvement," Appelquist said. The report recommends that graduate education should include the training of students for jobs in industry, which employs most PhD graduates today.

The report also concluded that physics will increasingly broaden its influence on other sciences, especially the life sciences. "We think that physics is likely to provide a lot to the biological sciences, neuroscience in particular," Appelquist said. In the past, Shapero said, physics was viewed as a tool for life sciences, but now physicists are beginning to understand how collaboration with biologists can aid physics as well.

To order a copy of "Physics in a New Era," e-mail the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the NAS at bpa@nas.edu


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