Professor Paul Hardaker, Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, explains why research breakthroughs in physics capture the public imagination…
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is highly valuable and more than justifies research, enriching our lives by allowing us to know why natural phenomena happen and how things work.
Professor Paul Hardaker
Trying to come up with an explanation for the origins, and nature, of our world is a universal human trait. Almost every culture on Earth has its own creation myths and its own cosmology. Some hold that the world was created by a man with a raven’s beak. Others claim that our planet is a flat plate balanced on an infinite tower of turtles. Physics, as the most fundamental of the sciences, combines that inherent curiosity and creativity with a desire to find out what is actually true and how the universe really works.
Perhaps it’s fulfilment of this need for stories about the universe that generated such widespread interest in the Higgs boson, the particle thought to be responsible for the existence of mass, the discovery of which was tentatively announced in July. If we love a mystery, we love solving them even more.
‘The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is highly valuable and more than justifies research, enriching our lives by allowing us to know why natural phenomena happen and how things work…’
Often though the mystery simply deepens, and the more we discover, the more we realise that there is much we don’t know. Weird and unexpected things happening can excite a great deal of interest too – results from CERN
suggesting that neutrinos could travel faster than light, long thought to be impossible, created a lot of headlines. However, the follow-up analysis that showed it was the experiment that was wrong, not our theories, was hardly covered at all.
All this adds up to strong levels of support for science among the public. A poll on public attitudes to science found in 2011 that more than 80 per cent of people agree that ‘science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest’ and two-thirds (67 per cent) think ‘it is important to know about science in my daily life’.
With these high levels of public enthusiasm for scientific research comes a willingness to pay for it, allowing physicists to get on with what they’re good at – expanding our understanding of the natural world and thereby making our lives better culturally, physically and economically.
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is highly valuable and more than justifies research, enriching our lives by allowing us to know why natural phenomena happen and how things work – this could be anything from children’s favourite questions about what clouds are and why the sky is blue to how stars form and what happens when those stars eventually stop twinkling.
But research has a more tangible value too. The more we know about the workings of the natural world, the less at its mercy we will be. Increasing confidence in atmospheric physics, to take just one example, has alerted us to the fact that continuing to pump more and more carbon dioxide into the air will mean our planet heating up. Moreover, not only has it identified this future problem, but with the development of clean energy technologies, carbon capture and storage, and so on, it also gives us the means to actually avoid a worldwide disaster too.
This is a far more dramatic example of how physics can change the world than the common ways in which this happens. Physics often leads to unexpected, unforeseen developments of enormous benefit – our understanding of the intricacies of nuclear magnetic resonance led to the MRI machine, which is now used in hospitals all over the world to save lives.
Even day-to-day technology that is derived from physics makes great contributions to our work and our leisure – most people now carry in their pocket more computing power than would have fit on an entire desk even just a few years ago, all of it connecting physically distant parts of the world at the touch of a button.
In satisfying our need for a story about the universe and our place within it, physics creates a tale of its own – one of repeated incremental benefits to every one of us.
This article originally appeared on Publicservice.co.uk
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