Saturday, February 16, 2008

Workers of the World, Untie!

(Yes, the misspelling is deliberate. Sheesh.)

I was thinking about a something someone recently opined about the theory of relativity, and I began to wonder- when will there be 'proletarian' discoveries in pure physics again, if ever?

Think about radio, TV, internet, power generation- all these things that are at the center of our culture. The bulk of enabling technology flows from Maxwell's equations. Beautiful and deep, they are simultaneously immanently practical, and have made a huge impact in the lives of most people on earth.

Chemistry is proletarian to the point of being ignored- it is so useful and productive that it falls into the background. I'm never at a loss to explain to someone who is skeptical of science all the good modern chemistry can do for them. The guy/gal on the street hates chemicals, but they love new fragrances, paints, dyes, drugs, fuels, fabrics, etc.

As much as it pains me to admit it, biology is clearly on the earliest edge of a exponential explosion of relevance to the welfare of humankind. Chemistry will be focal to this, no doubt. Some biophysics might be central, but I am pretty ignorant of where this is relevant to the current biotechnological program.

Solid state physics certainly changed the world, but that has been handed off to engineers and materials chemists for a long time. High Tc superconductors? Hmm.

What has fundamental physics done for me lately? MRI, maybe? Maxwell and Schrodinger plus engineering. I'm not saying that physics cannot, or will not, be the cornucopia of future technological blessings for us all. I'm just wondering whether anything at the forefront of physics is likely to do much anytime soon. I'd be happy for someone to rebuke me and point out all that is just around the corner, but I'm not seeing it. I ask as an unrepentant physicsphile. I don't really believe in nanotechnology yet, and most of what I see will be chemistry. I wonder...


At Sunday, February 17, 2008, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

Untie what?
Maybe physics has been handed off to us (and engineers and materials people) in the same quiet way that what we do benefits the lazy biologists. It doesn't always seem that they have a solid understanding of the underlying chemistry behind what they do, but it enables them to do whatever it is that's on the useful edge of biology.
Nanotech...what I've seen of it so far, I wouldn't describe as chemistry. It's voodoo to grow particles or rods or "nanotriangles" of the intended composition and size distribution. While the applications are's the materials types who are taking advantage of them. But the physicists have been able to do some damn cool things on the tiny scale.
(Of course, I'm young and ignorant, and most of what I know is what I learned through a summer nanotech internship.)

At Saturday, March 08, 2008, Blogger David Eaton said...

I agree, for the most part. It is too early to tell whether nano will really be ubiquitous and useful.

And I expect that there will be plenty of realignment as chemist get better at understanding and controlling nano-voodoo. The physicists will figure out what they want, and the chemists will figure out how to make it in endless variety.

Untie ties. Not that you'd find many science-types with a tie or very buttoned-down, except when they are interviewing for a job where they will never dress so formally. It's a dumb reference. I wanted to use the word proletarian, but I am so viscerally anti-Marxist that I can't use their slogans, even in jest...


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