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Letter: In defense of physics

At the turn of the 20th century, physics was not central to the American higher education mission. According to David Cassidy (A Short History of Physics in the American Century, Harvard UP, 2011), “American contributions could not compare with [European] achievements” (7). 

Not only were American physics professors burdened with high teaching loads, they “did not themselves perform any original research” and most held only the bachelors’ degree (10). 

American universities wanting to support physics “found [that] … industry was providing growing support of applied research in university laboratories, and it was demanding better preparation of students for engineering careers” (14). 

Leaders of American universities faced additional problems. Not only were most of the world’s prominent physicists Europeans, physics itself was in disarray. Einstein had recently overturned Newton and then had been, himself, challenged by the newly emergent quantum physics and mechanics. 

In short, American universities had good reasons to turn away from Departments of Physics. It was clear that manufacturing would provide jobs. Physicists were not in high demand.

Nevertheless, the wise leaders of American universities redoubled their efforts to improve their Physics Departments. By the end of the First World War, America produced students and insights enabling American physicists to stand side-by-side with their European counterparts during the World War II development of nuclear energy and weapons.

Had American universities not met the challenge and instead turned away from physics, Americans might today be wearing grey-colored clothes and driving Volkswagens.

At the turn of the 21st century, it might now seem easy to forsake physics. Physics is not in high demand as an undergraduate major. Physics is difficult and few job descriptions list it as a preferred preparation requirement.

Regardless, we should recognize one of the significant risks of turning away from this long-standing bastion of intellectual excellence. Virtually all technical work relies on computational resources. Bio-chemistry, engineering, business, computer science, on-line enterprises, and the medical industries, as well as the arts and humanities, depend on computational resources.

Quantum computing is likely to be the next phase in computer evolution. Once computing becomes quantum, almost everything we know about computers and networks change. 

Who will explain to our students, and their eventual employers, how quantum computing works? I’ve read dozens of books about quantum physics and can explain some of its theoretical underpinnings but I cannot work the equations that constitute quantum physics or computing. For that, one needs a physicist. Physicists can involve students in the necessary and pragmatic scientific work required for mastering quantum mysteries and explaining the facts to the rest of us.

While people with wide expertise developed nuclear energy in the 20th century, bringing the work to fruition relied on physicists. Such will be the case in the 21st century for the jump to quantum computing. 

This is not the time to turn our backs on the discipline that may be the most fundamental science in our current century. History demands we remember and act with respect.

 

Edward Lee Lamoureux, Ph.D.

Professor

Department of Interactive Media, Department of Communication

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