Inquiring Minds

Questions About Physics

What is in the future for physics?

You wrote:
We are constantly preoccupied with the next steps in our sciences. I would be interested to know, in your opinion, what the next fifteen steps are likely to be in physics in the 21st Century.

With thanks for your time
Stephanie G.

Dear Stephanie: Your question regarding the far distant goals/discoveries of physics is obviously very difficult to answer. In particular, physics is such a vast field that it is already difficult for me to do justice to those areas in physics I am not so familiar with.

Here some highlights that I think physicists will, step by step, (try to) achieve, together with scientists and engineers from related disciplines. Of course, this is a very subjective selection, and the order of the different topics does not represent any priorities with regard to need or feasibility. And these are topics that do not build on top of each other. Rather these are topics that scientists will, step by step, understand and achieve within this century (according to my prediction).

- Finding a Grand Unified Theory of elementary particles and their interactions: Can all elementary forces be explained by one underlying form of interaction?

- Generating energy on earth by controlled plasma fusion, the power source of our sun

- Using light instead of electrons to transport information, doing calculations (quantum computers)

- Understanding why different elementary particles have different masses; What "makes" mass?

- Understanding the evolution of the universe from its very early time

- Creating materials that are superconductors (material that conducts electricity without loss of energy, that is, no resistance) at or near room temperature

- Creating plastic-like materials from renewable resources (like trees)

- Creating materials that can change color and consistency by pressing a button

- A "machine" that can sort material on molecular bases, transforming hazardous molecules into non-threatening forms

- Finding substitute techniques and materials to today's computer technology (as silicon technology for chips and magnetic storage media come close to its physical limits)

- Inventing a "pen" that writes with individual atoms, so we can easily assemble molecules and much more

- Creating body-machine interfaces to control machines directly by human mind

- Using sunlight for most of our energy needs (which includes very efficient solar cells, new generation of light batteries, safe technology to use hydrogen gas generated using sunlight to power engines, etc)

- Understanding friction and finding a solution (special coatings, etc) to minimize it

- Developing an inexpensive, computer-guided mass transportation system that accommodates individual needs

- Finding a solution to transform radioactive nuclear waste into harmless material

To give you a few more ideas about areas that people do research in and discoveries that may change many aspects of our daily life as we know it, check out the following website (not only related to physics):

Discover magazine presents 19 brilliant and dedicated individuals who have devised intriguing technologies for a future yet unwritten:

You may also want to take a look back at the last hundred years to understand how many revolutionary changes the human race has already seen. This may give you a flavor of what to expect from the next hundred years. Check out the centennial celebration of the American Physical Society in 1999.

I hope my answers and the above information could inspire you. You posed a very interesting and very hard question, and depending on who you ask you may get even more revolutionary answers (teletransportation, traveling near the speed of light, robots everywhere, ...), and I may have forgotten some "obvious" areas for future discoveries in physics. A lot of interdisciplinary areas related to biology and medicine I have not covered either. My apologies to scientists working in these areas.

Please let me know of other answers you may get. Thanks.

Best wishes,

Kurt Riesselmann Fermilab, Office of Public Affairs

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last modified 7/29/2000