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by Hans Christian von Baeyer, College of William and Mary
American competitors in the 1998 Physics Olympiad in Iceland. (Photo from Bernard Khoury, AAPT)
A look back over a century of physics reveals an era of vigorous growth, not only in depth and scope, but also in sheer volume. The membership of the American Physical Society, for example, increased four hundred-fold from about a hundred in 1900 to over forty thousand in 1997. In part this growth reflects ballooning university enrollments, but it is also a symptom of the evolution of the scientific enterprise from a genteel academic pursuit into a robust component of the world's economy.
The story of the transistor illustrates the transformation. Life without computers is now as unthinkable as a computer without miniaturized transistors. Those, in turn, are products of a vast applied research effort at university and industrial laboratories that was rooted in pure, basic research. The lineage of today's laptop leads straight back to Werner Heisenberg's discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925.
Turning to the coming century, and trying to anticipate the future directions of science, it helps to remember that the great discoveries are rarely the outcomes of deliberate searches for universal answers, but more often the unanticipated dividends of careful research focused on modest, specific questions. Nearly four hundred years ago, for example, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler struggled for four years to remove a minute discrepancy in the calculated orbit of Mars - and discovered the laws that govern the motions of all the planets in the universe. In this century, Ernest Rutherford was investigating the details of the passage of charged particles through matter, when he hit upon the atomic nucleus. In the 21st century the passionate pursuit of particular problems will likewise yield wonderfully unexpected universal insights.
And what are the profound insights physicists could hope for? We may soon know what dark matter is, and whether the universe will continue to expand forever, but how did time begin? General Relativity teaches us what gravity is, but where does mass - which measures inertia even in the absence of gravity - come from? How should we describe turbulence, the chaotic swirl of liquids and gases that has defied mathematical physicists for a century? If we knew, would we be able to predict weather patterns and heart attacks? Can consciousness be explained in terms of electrical currents in neural networks, and possibly quantum mechanics, or is there more to it? For that matter, do we have to accept the strange laws of quantum mechanics without question, or will someone discover the clue that makes the quantum obvious, as Albert Einstein never stopped hoping? How did life begin? Are we alone in the universe? Until we can answer such questions with confidence, we cannot claim to have understood the world.
Looking back we realize that we have learned much in this century, but of mysteries there is no end. The most impenetrable of them all is to predict what the next discovery will be.
Editor's Note: A CENTURY OF PHYSICS, a dramatic illustrated timeline wallchart of several hundred entries on eleven large posters is being given to all US high schools and colleges. Each poster covers about a decade and is introduced by a thumbnail essay to provide a glimpse of the historical and scientific context of the time. A Century of Physics will be on display at the Atlanta Centennial Meeting in March.
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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette