The shape of physics to come

If the 20th century was the century of physics, then the 21st century will be the century of biology.” That prediction, heard repeatedly around the turn of the millennium, understandably irritated physicists, who objected to the implication that they were going to lose ground in a historic race between the scientific disciplines.

Fourteen years later, however, industries based on physics – particularly information and communications technology – have transformed many more lives so far this century than their counterparts in biology, which are only slowly building on advances in fields such as genomics and stem cells. In fundamental research, too, physics is powering ahead, as this special edition of the FT Weekend Magazine – the first devoted to a single science subject – illustrates.

The standard bearer, as far as public attention is concerned, is the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European high-energy physics centre outside Geneva. The media have lapped up the story of the world’s most powerful atom smasher: its construction with vast and colourful particle detectors in a 27km ring beneath the Swiss-French borderland; its triumphant opening followed by catastrophic failure and then recovery to run perfectly for two years; last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson; and, finally, this month’s Nobel Prize award to the theorists who came up with the idea in 1964, Peter Higgs and François Englert.

Yet particle physics and its cousin, cosmology, are the fields that lie furthest from practical application. Sci-fi writers will have fun imagining the possibilities but no one knows what the practical spin-offs may be, any more than J J Thomson knew that discovering the electron in 1897 would lead to an age of electronics in the late 20th century. For now, the rewards from unpicking the fabric of reality – the forces and particles that determine the past, present and future of our universe – are intellectual.

Appreciating those rewards can be hard for those without a background in physics or mathematics. Even with a chemistry degree, I sometimes struggle to understand how the Higgs particle arises from its associated quantum field.

Some say it is pointless for non-scientists to try. A reader wrote to the FT last week rejecting the suggestion in an editorial that particle physicists should work harder to explain the significance of their discoveries, on the grounds that “some topics will be eternally beyond the reach of the uneducated”. I take a very different attitude: public engagement in science is critical and a partial understanding, even the illusion of understanding, is better than nothing.

Some physicists may hate the “God particle” tag that the Higgs acquired, almost accidentally, 20 years ago when the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman was persuaded by his publishers to change the title of a book about it from The Goddamn Particle (because he found it so troublesome) to The God Particle. But the label has increased popular interest in their research without undermining its integrity.

Indeed, particle physicists should overcome their squeamishness about popularising their work, if they want to retain the public and political support that will be essential for continued funding. The best analogy for the Higgs mechanism dates back to 1993 when William Waldegrave, then UK science minister, challenged physicists to explain it in simple lay terms. This involved Margaret Thatcher passing through a cocktail party representing the Higgs field, and acquiring “mass” as people clustered around her; the Higgs particle was represented by the clustering of guests when a spicy piece of gossip passed through the room. The story has been updated to feature current celebrities but never surpassed. Perhaps Cern could celebrate the Nobel Prize with a competition for the best new explanation for the Higgs particle?

Other fast-moving areas of physics may need similar popularisation. One is quantum computing, based on the principle that subatomic particles can be in several places at once. But there is a practical outcome on which to focus here: ultrafast computers that could out-calculate their electronic counterparts.

Easier to comprehend is graphene, the latest wonder material which emerged from a physics lab in Manchester less than 10 years ago. We can envisage the endless two-dimensional sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal honeycomb structure, from which its extraordinary properties stem.

Physics will drive further rapid development of technology and knowledge through the 21st century, hand in hand with other sciences in an increasingly interdisciplinary environment.

Of course, we cannot predict at this stage how susceptible nature will be to the discovery of “new physics” beyond what we already know – nor how willing society will be to fund a science whose frontiers may move beyond human comprehension. But I am confident that, thanks to physicists, my successor as FT science editor in 2113 will be covering a world as different to today’s as ours is to 1913.

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