When thinking about the future of physics (or conversing with other would-be scientists looking to go into chemical or biological fields) it is often hard to think of where the world/life changing discoveries, inventions and associated funding will come from. Upon pondering this topic for a while (and wishing to talk about both the two fields) I came to conclusion that physics has a lot of room to move, but quantum physics and astrophysics are areas with the greatest potential.
Quantum physics looks are matter misbehaving. At normal (grain of sand to planets [normally]) scales, matter behaves according to ‘classical physics’, where a particle can be pinned down to specific characteristics, positions and behaviours. Going smaller, i.e. at subatomic scales, particles like electrons and nuclei can break those rules, such as with wave-particle duality and quantum tunnelling. As with anything that seems to behave differently than we are used to, it can be hard for scientists to see where these differences are, which is why quantum has room to grow. However, it can and likely will be very useful.
Quantum physics states that a particle cannot be fully understood, not all its properties can be defined. The use of this is binary computation. Normally, we have to state that something is 1 or 0, but as we cannot confirm this with quantum particles, they will simultaneously represent both. For example, with two qubits (the particles used in quantum processors to represent the 1s and 0s), the pair will show all four combinations at the same time. With this in mind, problems where there many options will be worked out significantly faster than normal processors. The problem with qubits again goes back to their property that the particle cannot be fully defined, which means anything interacting with the particle will cause the particle to exhibit 1 state instead of 2. This is an area which physicists are looking at working around, but such a property has another use.
If it were possible to transfer information using this quantum property, if someone intercepts the information, the state would change and it would be known that there was an interception, leading to more secure information transfer. With faster computation speeds, (very specific) problems we deem today to take far too long to solve even with the ever increasing processing power and knowledge of faster ways to solve problems become trivial to solve.
The economics of space exploration often comes into question, but looking at the universe around us and going out to explore it is relatively inexpensive compared to the benefit it can bring us. Science has shown that there are many resources which are depleting or are not available in enough quantity that is easy to extract can be found elsewhere in space and they can be very useful in making our lives easier and products better. It is also often discoveries intended for a consequence of space exploration that impact our everyday lives due to innovations passed to consumers through more efficient designs.
Furthermore, our planet does not have the resources to support the expansions we would like to go through or might go through, so finding habitable spaces, whether natural or man-made, could be crucial in making sure resources are still there for future generations and societies do not feel confined or restrained. The problem associated with space exploration are distances are not short, so even with advances in fuel technologies (which are again passed to different industries), sending people rather than machines is complex and again an area that the science can progress in.
The austere economic climate is threatening any area of spending that cannot quickly show money is well spent. With quantum and astrophysics showing promise and potential economic benefits, physicist and related scientists should continue to receive funding for the foreseeable future.
Contributed by Kojo Amoasi Science and Technology Editor