"Physics for Humans" explores ways that physics directly serves human needs and supports a thriving and resilient society. The chief aim is to stimulate inventive thinking about new opportunities for human applications of physics.
A workshop on Physics for Humans is available in pdf form.
Major areas of human needs and activities have been placed into groups and listed in accord with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and with an international consensus of factors contributing to human well being. The areas have also been formed from combinations of various classification systems for industry and economic activity. Click on each heading below to begin to explore how physics connects to a particular area.
"Physics for Humans" explores ways that physics directly serves human needs and supports a thriving and resilient society. The chief aim is to stimulate inventive thinking about new opportunities for human applications of physics.
1 Discovering and Creating Knowledge
If someone were to ask “What do physicists do?”, a good answer might be: “Physicists discover and create knowledge about the universe.” We label the category "Discovering and Creating Knowledge" as item number “∞” because it is a never-ending pursuit. In a 1945 report to the president of the United States*, Vannevar Bush called science “the endless frontier”; the report then laid the foundation for broad public support of scientific investigation. Centuries of evidence support the idea that knowledge pursued for its own sake is hugely valuable to humanity, because this knowledge inevitably becomes a resource for meeting our needs and addressing our practical concerns. Fundamental research by physicists is part of the larger spectrum of scientific investigation across many disciplines.
By posing questions that are as deep and fundamental as the human mind can conceive, physics creates a foundation for all of science. It also gives humanity a better sense of its place in the universe. Fortunately, physics as a fundamental pursuit for its own sake need not conflict with physics as a base for applications. One might see these as two sides of the same coin, the body of which consists of common methods of analysis, computing and experimentation. Physics often progresses through metaphorical thinking and real-world experience can trigger insights into deep questions. Conversely, fundamental theories demand new types of experiments and these, in turn, push the limits of our technologies in ways that inevitably translate into practical use.
What are some of the frontiers in serving humanity’s energy needs? Enabling humanity’s large urban centers to make large-scale use of renewable energy and vastly reduce their impact on the climate is key to the future well-being of all life on earth. Increasing the resilience and reliability of energy distribution through power grids and other methods keeps complex societies running even when natural and human-caused disruptions occur.
Designing energy-efficient devices for lighting and cooking, capturing and controlling various sources of thermal energy to keep dwellings comfortable, and coupling renewable energy to water availability and food production ends starvation and lifts large populations out of poverty. Providing compact portable sources and storage of energy is key to communication, information, health maintenance, and flexible transportation and production. An advanced understanding of the metabolic processes and systems in our own bodies will create better strategies for nutrition. Detailed modeling and manipulation of photosynthesis in plants and varied types of energy exchanges in micro-organisms can open up new ways to maintain healthy and productive ecosystems. And, yes, developing vast new sources of energy like fusion can place civilization on a new trajectory of advancement.
Topics to consider
- fossil fuels
- coal, oil, gas
- nuclear energy
- surface waves
- internal waves
- biogenerated fuels
- human & animal work
Energy transmission & distribution
- power grids
- transported fuels
- charging stations
- chemical batteries
- exothermal reactants
- fuel cells
- elevated mass
- compressed air
- springs & elastomers
- limb & branch motion
- internal combustion engines
- heat engines & heat pumps
- electric motors
- fluidic devices
- electric heaters
Thermal energy management
- convective currents
- phase change materials
- adaptive clothing
- reflective glass
- LED lighting
- reflective roofs
- efficient cooking
American Physical Society organizational units
3 Air and water
Humans cannot exist without air to breath and water to drink. Human health requires clean air and water that is not contaminated with harmful organisms or substances. As large population centers grow and seek to advance their economies, atmospheric pollution becomes a major issue due to industry, automobiles, power needs of dwellings, etc. How can new technologies enable such growth and development while reducing the output of pollutants? What can be done to better monitor air quality, both outdoors and in enclosed spaces. How do we understand and control the needs for proper ventilation and do so with improved energy efficiency? Meanwhile, the lack of secure access to safe drinking water is a critical issue for large populations on earth. What better devices and systems can be used in finding, cleaning, transporting, and distributing water? Even in developed nations, the large-scale use of aquifers and other water sources for agriculture is depleting supplies below levels that could be recovered for long-term sustainable use. How can improved methods of water resource monitoring and irrigation mitigate the impacts while sustaining and even increasing agricultural productivity?
Industry uses large quantities of water for all sorts of processes and each of these is an opportunity for advancements in sensing, control, and overall process design to reduce water use and eliminate contamination. At a global scale, we know that changes in composition of the atmosphere, oceans, lakes and rivers is having large and some cases devastating impact on the climate and on living ecosystems: how do we monitor and reverse these impacts? At the level of individuals, what technologies improve the reliability and availability personal air supplies for sick people and for workers in special environments (fire fighters, scuba divers, etc.) How can personal water supplies be improved for use in sports and outdoor activities? Can large scale use of bottled water be replaced with attractive options? Finally, the technologies to provide air and water for human exploration of space and settlement of planets like Mars opens up major new challenges in the provision of resources that we so often take for granted.
Topics to consider
- carbon capture
- amine scrubbers
- Sabatier reaction
- electrostatic precipitators
- cyclone separators
Air quality measurement
- solid state sensors
- radon sensors
- smoke detectors
Air in enclosed spaces
- building ventilation
- aircraft & spacecraft
- mines & caves
Personal air supply
- tanks & respirators
- dust filter masks
- gas masks
- high altitude supplement
- boiling & condensation
- reverse osmosis
Water quality measurement
- Electrical conductivity
- Magnetic resonance
- Rivers & lakes
- Wells & aquifers
- Atmospheric vapor
Personal water supply
- water bottles
- insulated containers
- hydration packs
- intravenous supply
- breath recapture
Water transport & distribution
- vehicle transport
- water mains
- pumping systems
- storage tanks
- water towers
Waste water treatment
- septic systems
The topic of food is incredibly rich in opportunities to employ physics. A starting point could be the development of models of the processes for the bio-synthesis of nutrients, especially photosynthesis of carbohydrates at the base of the food chain. The next level is to explore physical aspects of metabolism and how this gives us insight in healthy nutrition. Of course, for human consumption and enjoyment, food must be prepared in various ways: mixing, cooking, etc. A whole science of cooking has emerged that incorporates active areas of research in soft matter physics, so-called “molecular gastronomy”, etc. Next, consider how food is grown and harvested: how are methods of farming developing to be efficient in energy, water, fertilizers, and weed and pest control while improving nutritional value? What physical resources support new methods of farming, such as vertical farms and aquaculture? How does physics enable advances in palatable and nutritional substitutes for meat?
Once food is produced, how is it effectively harvested – in developed countries with access to advanced machinery including robots and in developing regions where human labor remains an essential element? How can the safety of workers be improved in the various stages of food production? How do networks for food transportation, preservation, and distribution improve access to food for all people, ranging from those who live in regions particularly vulnerable to weather changes to people living in so-called “food desserts” in cities? Finally, what physical methods maintain and improve food safety, eliminating pathogens and detecting physical and chemical contaminants? The next time you enjoy a favorite meal and beverage, think about applications of physics that provide the widest possible number of people both basic nutrition and robust enjoyment of food and drink.
Topics to consider
- Metabolism & bioenergetics
- Systems models
- Root growth
- Mineral requirements
- Insect & plant control
- Multispectral imaging
- Smart sensor systems
- Animal care
- Fish population maintenance
Indoor food production
- Artificial lighting
- Water management
- Vertical farms
- Mechanical operations
- Sorting & inspection
- Contaminant removal
- Synthetic food
- Radiation treatments
- Packaging & containers
Food transportation & distribution
- Global vs local sources
- Source identification
- Damage prevention
- Fresh food management
- Soft matter physics of food
- Thermal processing
- Mechanical behavior
- Devices & tools
- Serving implements
- Maintaining temperature
- Table ware
- Assistive technologies
- Food enjoyment
Food safety & allergies
- Emergency response
- Animal feed
- Waste reduction
Emergency & humanitarian supply
- Seed development
- Farmland preservation
- Food stockpiling
- Delivery and distribution
5 Ecosystems, weather, and environment
It might not take a rocket scientist to realize that maintaining our environment - on a global, regional, local and even personal-living-space scale – is essential to our well-being; however, it was indeed rocket science that brought us stunning images of the earth seen from a distance. These images accentuated the uniqueness of the planet we inhabit. Physics helps us make wise choices about living in earth-bound environments, helps us model behaviors and detect changes, and gives us tools to be resilient as individuals and as societies to disruptive changes. Dynamical systems theory models ecosystem behavior in terms of fundamental exchanges of matter and energy; this provides ways to anticipate “tipping points” where sudden, large changes can create a catastrophic disruption.
As human population concentrates more into urban centers, improved understanding is needed of physical processes like heat flow, contaminant transport, and air and moisture exchanges within and around buildings. Physical infrastructures can support the adroit use of biological systems like urban forests, wildlife and roof gardens and help with the detection and removal of pathogens and pollutants. As cities expand into surrounding territories, the need arises to use measurement systems, models, tools, and machines to manage the urban/wildland interface – preventing destructive fires, preserving natural spaces and regional biodiversity, mitigating the disruption and destabilization of landforms, etc. Both urban and agricultural regions depend on good maintenance of balanced ecosystems, fair distribution of natural resources, and robust adaptation to local and regional scale variations in microclimate.
Meanwhile, the earth depends in many ways on large sparsely settled ecosystems, ranging from rainforests to the oceans to alpine regions to the arctic tundra. We strive to invent ways to prevent and/or mitigate major disruptions to these environments, such as the dispersion of plastics large spills of oil in the ocean. We greatly need to improve our models and understanding of how such regions maintain a planetary balance of biodiversity, atmospheric composition, temperature control, protection from harmful radiation, etc. This of course blends into the gamut of physics-based activities to model the weather for short- and medium-term prediction, using well-designed measurement networks, and from this base to make essential long-term models and forecasts of climate change. We hope that our understanding and measurement can soon assure us that we are implementing the correct measures to ensure that the earth remains a healthy home over the long-term for all forms of life.
Topics to consider
Ecosystem modeling & maintenance
- Systems thinking
- Wildlife / human interaction
- Specific systems e.g marshland, alpine, etc.
- Urban wildlife
- Energy/air/water/waste flows
- Home terrarium
- Biosphere II
- Space Station
- Mars Colony
- Trash / ocean plastics
- Foot and vehicle damage
- Soil erosion
- Wave erosion
- Wetland loss
- Coral reef loss
- Invasive species
- Mine tailings
- Sensor networks
- Prediction models
- Chaotic aspects
- Intense storms
Microclimates & locally impacted weather
- Urban heat island
- Farmland weather
- Fire weather
- Data gathering
- Sea level rise
- Intensified storms
Natural hazard prediction & mitigation
- Hurricanes & typhoons
- Wildland fires
- Rock & mudslides
- Sustainable design and manufacturing
- Large infrastructure projects
- Community resilience
6 Dwellings and the built environment
A defining characteristic of humans is the need for shelter and the capacity to design and build such shelters. Over thousands of years, this capacity has evolved from the level of single-family dwellings made of found materials to massive apartment or condominium structures at one scale and portable, light-weight camping shelters made from synthetic materials at another scale. Now human societies are engaged in a major new effort to redesign shelters to be sustainable, with minimum or zero requirements for non-renewable energy, use of materials whose composition and processing represents minimal environmental impact, and explicit use of physics to manage the temperature, ventilation, moisture, lighting, acoustics, and other elements of comfort under variable (and possibly challenging) climatic conditions.
Early human societies eventually organized and built villages that have evolved into towns, cities, and now vast urban megalopolises. These required a larger number of additional structures that are highly interconnected: places for buying goods, places to eat, storehouses, workplaces, meeting spaces, schools, hospitals, banks, public safety and military bases, places of worship, sports arenas, theaters, museums, transportation centers, factories, offices, research & development facilities, etc. Conduits for transportation vehicles, aqueducts, sewage & drainage, power distribution, parks & recreation facilities, and other elements of modern infrastructure add to the built environment. As the majority of earth’s population has settled in condensed urban environments, while the remainder plays essential roles in growing and transporting food, the needs for complex, sustainable, and resilient built environments has become one of the critical needs for future human survival and well-being.
Topics to consider
Types of dwellings
- Single family, multi-unit, condominiums, apartments, dormitories, temporary
Elements of dwelling design and construction
- Structural elements and systems
- Roofs (including green roofs)
- Doors & windows
- Interior partitions & ceilings
- Heating & cooling; insulation
- Moisture and humidity
- Utilities installation (water, electricity, gas, etc.)
- Biological issues
- kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, family room, garage, entranceway…
Building test and inspection systems
- Building code
- Decks & patios
- Walkways and driveways
- Ground settings and landscaping
- Fences & retaining walls
- Flood & fire mitigation
- Locks & security
Home interior design
Universal design and assistive technologies in the home
Assisted housing and shelter for homeless
Housing for refugees
Self-sufficient (“off-grid”) living
Sustainable design (green design, LEED certification, etc.)
Modular and portable structures
Mobile homes and workspaces
- Telescope observatories
Sheds and small functional buildings
- Barns & stables
- Animal buildings
- Storm shelters
Urban and regional planning
- Parks & recreation
- Microclimates of built-up areas
- Wildland – urban interface
- Resilience to climate change & natural disasters
- Office buildings
- Retail centers
- Hospitals, police stations, fire stations
- Stadiums, theaters and public meeting spaces
- Transportation centers (airports, seaports, train stations & switchyards, etc.)
- Underground infrastructure
- Surface-level infrastructure
- Above-ground infrastructure
- Archeological and historical site mapping, excavation, and restoration
7 Things for daily living
Consider waking up in the morning, grabbing a notebook, and recording every tangible item that you use during the next 24 hours. Imagine taking this a step further and identifying how physics is involved in each item. Here are a few examples in a long list, just from the first hour. An alarm clock awakens you: the timer may be based upon electronically-sustained resonance of a piezoelectric quartz crystal that sets the fundamental pulse rate. The sound generator could also be piezoelectric, this time in the form of a ceramic and metal disk. You go wash and groom in the bathroom: soap is a wonderful example of delicate interaction of molecules that makes materials soluble in water. Towels are designed to absorb moisture and to feel good when touching the skin; however, it is also convenient for them to dry fairly quickly in open air and to be relatively unsatisfactory substrates for fungus or bacterial colonies.
Breakfast in the kitchen uses utensils and dishware that are manufactured at modest cost to optimize material choice, form and function. Cooking devices mix and heat your meal in a variety of ways. While eating you adjust curtains or blinds that regulate light through your kitchen window; perhaps your window itself does this by automatically changing its tint. Along the way, you check that your house plants are looking healthy thanks to an automatic moisture sensing and watering system. You sit on a chair and place your food on a table that are sturdy and aesthetically pleasing structures. As you move about your dwelling you walk along various surface coverings – rugs, mats, tiles, etc. – that make walking comfortable. Slippers protect your feet with light-weight, conformable, and durable materials. It is likely that you use various entertainment devices to either listen to music or catch up on news and weather reports. Soon you are on your way out the front door, whose biosensing and/or wirelessly activated lock mechanism acts appropriately as you depart.
Topics to consider
- Outer wear
- Hair driers
Linens and fabrics
Bedroom sheets and blankets
Bathroom towels and washcloths
- Living and family room
Implements for cooking and eating
- Large kitchen appliances (stove, fridge, dishwasher)
- Small kitchen appliances
- Pots and pans
- Cooking utensils
- Drinking cups and glasses
- Food storage
Implements for cleaning
- Brooms, dustpans, brushes
- Vacuum cleaners
- Laundry appliances (washer and drier)
- Purses and wallets
- Carryall bags
- Luggage Storage
- Storage containers
- Storage racks and shelving
- Hangers and closet organizers
- Clocks and watches
- Magnifiers and binoculars
- Home entertainment
- Stereo Tools
- Hand tools
- Power tools
- House plants
- Pictures and picture frames
- Antiques and restoration
The fundamental physical concepts of force and motion come into their own as essential ideas in the design and function of moving vehicles. When we are passengers in vehicles, these become overt sensory experiences as we encounter linear acceleration, centripetal acceleration, changes in orientation relative to gravity, vibration, the sounds of varying power in engines, and the sound of moving air or water. Indeed, significant aspects of human-centered vehicle design attend to the comfort or discomfort of these experiences. At a deeper level lies the essential connections between energy supply, power plant, and drive train or thrust mechanism needed to make the vehicle move. Structures must bear loads and accommodate the vehicle to its environment, protecting passengers and other contents. Drag and friction must be minimized. The dynamical behavior of vehicles must be understood for effective control and stability. Steering and guidance are now rapidly evolving from human controlled systems into autonomous vehicle technologies. These technologies are adapted to rovers designed to explore the surfaces of remote planets and moons.
Once a hobby for radio-control enthusiasts, small drones for air, sea, and land operation have become serious business. At the other extreme of scales, infrastructures such as roadways, railways, shipping lanes, and air-traffic control systems span entire continents and even the globe. Spacecraft require an interplanetary scale of operation, guidance and communication. Finally, elaborate systems and infrastructures use transportation vehicles to pick up, route, and deliver goods and services. Large networks of containerized shipping have radically transformed raw materials and manufacturing into a global system. New services mediated by mobile communications provide transportation of people, meals, and consumer shopping items “on demand”. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the “Star Trek” idea of beaming people and materials remains science fiction…but some technologies like remotely specified 2D and 3D printing allow some parts of this dream to be realized. Finally, quantum “teleportation” is the source of intriguing conceptual issues regarding coupling physical events across distance.
Topics to consider
General considerations for vehicle technologies
- Power plant
- Energy supply
- Thrust mechanism / drive train
- Vertical force: lift / suspension system
- Drag / friction
- Vehicle structure
- Crashworthiness and crash mitigation
- Vehicle materials
- Vehicle dynamics
- Guidance & Steering
- Autonomous operation
- Infrastructure needed to operate the vehicles
Land transport vehicles
- RC cars & mobile robots
- Electric powered single person transport (bicycles, scooters, hoverboards)
- Carts & trailers
- All-terrain and utility vehicles
- Electric cars
- Autonomous cars
- Maglev trains
Infrastructure: Walkways, trails, roads, railroads, bridges, tunnels, traffic control systems
Mass transportation systems
On-demand land transport services
Sea transport vehicles
- RC boats
- Autonomous watercraft
- Submarines and submersibles
- Infrastructure: Seaports, floating platforms, canals, coastal engineering, navigation aids (lighthouses, buoys, beacons, traffic control)
- Sea transport services
Air transport vehicles
- RC aircraft & small drones
- Large drones
- Propeller-driven aircraft
- Jet aircraft
- Supersonic aircraft
- Upper atmospheric flight
- Helicopters and other vertical take-off and landing aircraft
- Jetpacks and electric-ducted fan propelled human flight
- Human powered and solar powered aircraft
- Auto pilots and autonomous aircraft
- Infrastructure: Airports, air traffic control
- Air transport services
Space transport vehicles
- Hypersonic flight
- Satellites and satellite subsystems
- Human transport into space
- Long duration space missions
- Astrodynamics and planetary navigation
- Infrastructure: Space launch facilities, tracking (including orbital debris), recovery systems
- Space transport services
Navigation systems & traffic control
- Inertial guidance
- Mail and small package routing, shipping and delivery
- Container shipping
- Bulk shipping
- Heavy equipment and large object transportation
On-Demand Transportation and Delivery
- Human point-to-point transportation
- Meal delivery
Mobile living and work environments
- Mobile homes
- Mobile offices
- Mobile food and sales vendors
- Mobile labs
- Mobile workshops and production facilities
Mobile heavy machinery
- Road construction machinery
- Farm machinery
- Armored vehicles and tanks
-- (in preparation)
9 Maintenance, recycling, and disposal
Many activities and resources are devoted to keeping the objects of our material existence in good order and, then, to disposing of them once their usefulness has finished. We regularly clean clothing, dishes, and our living & working spaces. When appliances break down, we our hired technicians to find and fix the causes. Homes, buildings, vehicles, and industrial machinery need a wide variety of maintenance for upkeep and repair. Some items – perhaps too many – are designed for limited use and then discarded. Other items might be sent to surplus outlets for re-use or dismantled so that their materials can be recycled. One way or another – either by recycling or disposal – the materials that we use go through a life cycle.
Physics is deeply involved in understanding this life cycle and in managing its consequences. At the deepest level, the inexorable influences of the second law of thermodynamics work to bring about decay of the purified and organized materials that we employ. More immediately, objects may fail in use due to damage or defects. Physics can model how things decay or fail and such models can be used to anticipate, prevent, detect, or mitigate degradation and failure. Physics can be used to develop durable and re-useable components and products, guide more sustainable choices of materials, and provide methods of protection against corrosion, contamination, and other adverse environmental effects. Physical & chemical processes can be designed to collect, sort, and process an increasing fraction of recycled materials. And finally, physics can be used to minimize environmental disruption when we choose to permanently discard materials.
Topics to consider
- Design for sustainability
- Design for maintainability
Maintenance and reliability engineering
- Friction and wear
- Corrosion analysis and prevention; biodegradation
- Fracture and fatigue
- Failure analysis; failure physics; forensic engineering
- Monitoring and diagnostics to prevent failure
- Nondestructive evaluation
Common repair categories
- Auto & motorbike
- Clocks and watches
- Furniture / upholstery
- Dry cleaners / clothing repair
- Publishing of home & auto repair guides
- Hardware stores
- Composite fillers
Paints and coatings
Replacement parts manufacturers, distributers, and retailers
Home repair services
- Appliance technicians
- Heating, ventilating, air conditioning (HVAC) technicians
- Fireplace and chimney sweeps
- Cleaning supplies and equipment
- Cleaning services
- Public event
- Specialty (e.g. crime scene)
- Office equipment (especially photocopiers)
- Laboratory equipment
Production machinery maintenance
Upcycling / downcycling / repurposing of spent materials and objects
- Sales of recycled goods
- Goodwill/ARC/Salvation Army thrift stores
- Garage sales
- Flea markets
- Mixed materials sorting
- Organic materials
- Sorting recycled materials
- Biodegradable materials
- Junk collectors
- Junk collection services
- Homeless collectors
- Trash collection and disposal
- Plasma incinerators
- Ocean dumping
- Sewage systems
- Wastewater treatment
- Consumer toxic wastes
- Industrial toxic wastes
- Asbestos removal
Contaminated site cleanup
- Ocean spill cleanup
- Lake & river cleanup
- Soil cleanup
- Toxic material detection
- Animal waste cleanup
10 Family, friends, and community
Let’s consider several levels of human interaction and how physics can be connected. First is one-to-one connections between people. Think about how touching another person can convey, in the right circumstances, a sense of comfort. From a gentle pat on the shoulder to a firm handshake, touch mediates bonding between humans. Now think about people whose circumstances deprive them of touch: people isolated because of immune disorders, burns, or disease quarantine, preterm babies or newborn infants orphaned from their mothers, and perhaps people in other situations. Since touch is a physical interaction, can there be physical surrogates – such as infrared heating or air pulsations – that can restore some of the benefits of touch? How else might the benefits of physical comforting be brought across to people in these situations?
Now think about humans interacting in small groups, from families to groups of friends to small physics departments. How are physical situations or effects used to explore and perhaps improve the function of human groups? In the 18thCentury, physics demonstrations were the attraction of social gatherings of aristocrats: is there a viable modern counterpart for adults? (Taking physics demos to school classrooms is already a well-established practice.) Does physics offer insight into the use of obstacle courses, escape rooms, or other physical environments to foster constructive interaction? How can physical intervention or physical devices help when groups are subjected to the stress of extreme environments or extreme situations?
At a somewhat larger scale, think about neighborhoods and local communities. How can physicists help organize technical information for community decision making about issues such as water supply, wildfire mitigation, etc.? How can physics and its devices be used to help communities identify and care for community members in need? Can a library of physical technologies such as measuring instruments – along with the knowledge to use them – be useful shared resources?
Now consider crowds of people. A field called “social physics” uses physical and mathematical modeling to understand crowd behavior, voting trends, buying choices, etc. In what other ways can physics be used in situations involving crowds, such as dangerous situations of panic or stampedes or more pleasant situations such as fans cheering for sports teams? Can physicists who study swarming, schooling, and flocking in other living organisms apply their models and insights to collective behavior in human crowds, such as the clapping, dancing, or marching?
In the end, perhaps the main idea is to do something positive – anything– that uses physics to engage people socially towards a positive aim. This gives people hope and a sense of efficacy that can extend well beyond any specific elements of physics.
Topics to consider
Physics as an opportunity for social interaction
- Physics activities for families
- Local community science centers
- Physics discussion groups at libraries,
- bookstores, cafés, etc.
- Citizen science doing physics
- Engaging retired scientists & engineers in
- support of community science centers
- Shared physics learning resources
Physics as a resource for neighborhoods and communities
- Providing technical information for community
- decision making, e.g. water supply
- Providing physical insight into matters of
- community interest, e.g. microclimates,
- local geology, building structures, etc.
- Providing shared technical resources
- (measuring instruments, special tools, etc.)
- Fostering community co-invention to solve local
- problems or meet local needs
Creating unique architectural designs for community buildings and spaces
- Physical elements that foster wonder and
- Physical elements that encourage interaction
- (e.g. responsive water fountains)
- Physical elements that help with inclusiveness
Community historical centers, archives & artifacts
- Interconverting physical items and digital
- Maintaining and explaining artifacts significant
- to a community’s culture
Promoting community resilience
- Modeling community hazards
- Facilitating communication and response in
- emergencies, natural disasters, etc.
- Helping communities anticipate long-term
- effects, eg global warming
Physics applied to social service & community care
- Identifying and staying in contact with people
- in need
- Systems to call for help, hotlines
- Helping people in adverse situations, eg heat waves
- Childcare & Eldercare
- Care for people with physical or mental disabilities
- Helping people who are socially awkward or isolated
Physical foundations & modeling of human interaction
- Neurology and physiology of human interaction
- Mutual awareness and empathy
Social physics modeling group and crowd behavior
- Network models
- Collective phenomena in voting, buying,...
Helping one-to-one and family interaction
- Mothers & infants
- Telepresence with distant loved ones
- Maintaining interaction with loved ones who
- must be isolated, e.g. for health reasons
- Physical elements to use daily routines as
- opportunities for family engagement
- Engaging with physical challenges (escape rooms, obstacle courses / parkour, orienteering, etc.)
- Novel methods for communication and location in group outings
- Technical support of “buddy systems” that provide mutual encouragement & safety
- Study groups, learning communities, cohorts, journal clubs, project teams
- Dorm life
- Student organizations
- Facilitating collaboration
- Professional societies
- Special interest groups
- Craft guilds
- Festivals & celebrations e.g. sound & light shows
- animated parade floats
Preventing or mitigating harmful community behavior
- Discrimination, persecution, shaming, ostracism, suspicion, xenophobia, etc.
Social interaction of humans & non-humans
- Farm animals
- Wildlife in urban-wildland interface; in urban, regional & national parks
- Animal communities and social behavior as models for study
- Robot swarms
Health care is replete with applications of physics. The earliest uses of X-rays for radiographs have evolved into sophisticated 3-dimensional time-resolved tomographic systems using X-rays, magnetic resonances, and positron emission. Ultrasound images organ tissues and developing fetuses and, with the Doppler effect, monitors blood flow in arteries and veins. Sensitive electrical measurements monitor heart, brain, and muscle activity. These tools for health monitoring and disease diagnosis are matched by tools for treatment, including radiation treatment and radiofrequency hyperthermia for cancer, a “gamma knife” for local excision of problem tissues in the brain. Fiber optics and associated tools permit direct imaging and non-invasive procedures inside the body. Meanwhile, optical and electron microscopes provide imaging at the cellular level…now at the point of tracking single molecules. Microfluidic technologies are rapidly evolving for rapid-throughput processing of cells and cell constituents. Mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance, x-ray crystallography, and other tools advance the understanding of biomolecules and potential drug treatments.
Meanwhile, testable physical models evolve to describe all scales of biological processes, from fundamental enzymatic control of reactions to cell membrane processes to the mechanics of cell division and cell motion…all the way up to the dynamics of heart beats and lung function, coordination of muscle activity for movement, etc. Physical devices are key to devices that can maintain or restore biological function: eyeglasses and hearing aids help with our senses, pacemakers and other implants keep the heart and other organs functioning, and prosthetic devices help with movement. Special technologies help first responders care for and transport people who are injured or who suddenly succumb to acute medical conditions like heart attacks. Personal monitoring devices can be worn like clothing or placed around our homes and workplaces, helping us sustain and optimize our well-being. And all of these technologies translate to the care of animals. Now a big challenge is to make the tremendous array of physics-enabled medical monitoring, diagnostics and treatments more affordable, more widely distributed, and capable of reaching people all over the world.
Topics to consider
- Health monitoring instruments
- Diagnostic instruments; biomarker detection
- Instruments for medical research
- Radiation therapy & laser therapy
- Operating room: surgery, anesthesia, life-support
Patient comfort and maintenance
- Prosthetics and assistive devices
Infectious disease prevention & control
Perhaps no other activity has more far-reaching effect on human welfare than education. The scope of education is broad. It starts from the first visual, audible, and tactile stimuli that we provide help infants with their vigorous and natural assimilation of all surrounds them. Then we shape environments for children to combine play with learning, hoping that they will take joy in acquiring – amazingly – the abilities to speak and read, manipulate and assemble, to watch and emulate. All this develops further through the various grades of formal learning up into adulthood, at which point humans are learning the knowledge and skills to support their livelihood and – we hope – to maintain an active and deep interest in the wonders human creativity and the natural world. Learning remains active throughout life and can achieve a resurgence when retirement permits a re-focusing of the active mind and (hopefully) still-healthy body.
So how does physics lend itself to this hugely important realm? First, of course, physics itself is a base of knowledge that gives profound order to our comprehension of our surroundings: observation of how infants probe their environment and naturally develop schema for living within it leads one to believe that we are all born physicists. The challenge is for physics to remain accessible and interesting as it becomes more abstract and mathematical and corrects natural misconceptions through careful uncovering of deeper constructs and relationships. Systematic research into how people learn physics helps bridge the gap between the “obvious” and the “true”. Also, fortunately, demonstrations of physical phenomena can always arouse intrigue; public engagement through such demonstrations is a key contribution to learning.
There are many other ways for physics to contribute. Physical tools like magnetic resonance imaging help us learn about brain processes associated with learning. Physical devices can extend our senses, giving us a chance to see with previously invisible radiation and even hear – when re-transcribed into loudspeaker movements – the arrival of gravity waves. Toys can be amazingly rich in their ability to reveal and employ physical effects. For learners with physical impairments, physics can assist by with tools and representations that make sure learning is available to everyone. Physics can attend to the environment in which we learn, making sure that it is safe, comfortable, and stimulating. Simulators – including physical motion devices as well as audio-visual simulations – can be designed as immersive environments. And communication technologies mediated by various physical devices can ensure that learning can be collaborate and extended across distance, unifying people through a common quest for knowledge.
Topics to consider
Physics approaches to understanding
- Empirical verification
Physics Education Research
- Improving methods to teach and learn physics
Modeling the dynamics of learning
- Acquiring motor skills
- Sensory integration
Physical methods to monitor brain while learning
- fMRI, EEG, etc.
Devices to extend physical senses
- Non-visuble imaging
- Haptic devices for touch
Assistive technologies for learners
- Helping with: motion, vision, hearing, touch etc.
- Enabling sight or motion-impaired people for work in a laboratory
Devices used in learning & teaching
- Collaboration tools
- Documentation tools
- Presentation tools
- 3D motion
- High altitude environments
- Converting data to sound
- Color encoded data maps
Functional replicas for study
- Scale models
- Material examples e.g. gels in food preparation
- Shared access
- Diverse media
- Library of things
Physical environments that support learning
- Setups that support collaboration
- Temperature, ventilation, lighting, sound
13 Safety and security
Humans are resilient but vulnerable beings, requiring devices to help keep them safe and well. From bicycle helmets to automobile crash protection systems, physical technologies safe lives. Safety monitoring and hazard response technologies are key for homes and workplaces. Other technologies are used when humans go into more extreme environments and subject themselves to natural hazards like avalanches or floods. When problems occur, first responders need tools for their own protection and for finding, rescuing, reviving, and caring for victims.Meanwhile, a recent spate of television dramas about crime scene investigation showed that tremendous popular interest could focus on the applications of science to processing forensic evidence and providing facts needed to bring justice for people who fall victim to crime. Crime prevention, of course, depends on a wide range of technologies deployed as security systems: motion detectors, intrusion sensors (including invisible light beams), surveillance imaging and sound-monitoring, etc.
Biometric devices such as fingerprint scanners, retina scanners, and identification card scanners rely on physical technology to determine who has authorized access. Once bad events happen, either due to criminal or to natural events, public safety officers use various technologies to locate, apprehend and subdue suspects. Another realm of investigation and prevention lies with the analysis of accidents, including major transportation accidents and structural failures, to determine causes and guide improvements in engineering of vehicles, buildings, bridges, etc. Modeling of natural phenomena like storms and even extreme events like asteroid collisions can help us prepare for these huge disruptions. Finally, in their current state, human societies must devote a large amount of resources – including highly sophisticated physics-based technologies – to military defense.
Topics to consider
Personal apparel and safety gear
Sports safety equipment
Hazard detectors and alarms
Emergency response equipment
Workplace and laboratory safety equipment
Vehicle safety systems
Structural and building safety
Accident investigation and forensic engineering
Hazardous materials handling
Search and rescue
Emergency services - first responders
Crime scene investigation
Defense warning and tracking
Single soldier arms and protection
Mechanized defense systems
Major defense systems (air, land, sea,...)
14 Information and communication
Human beings are essentially defined by their ability to generate, convey, and understand information: hence our species is called Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”). While many living species and even machines send, receive and respond to signals, humans – so far as we know – are unique in the high level of conscious, conceptual organization they employ in the use information. It is no accident that the growth of technologies to communicate and process information and the growth of physics have co-evolved since the times of Gutenberg (1395-1468) and Copernicus (1473-1543). The wide dissemination of printed texts fueled the growth of physics during the scientific revolution of the 16thand 17thcenturies; this eventually produced profound further developments in communication. The ability to generate and manipulate electric currents led to the telegraph; the development of electromagnetic theory resulted in radio communication; lasers and fiber optics give us the high capacity communication that we use today.
Meanwhile, steam power and precision mechanisms created a first stage of industrial automation that was then profoundly changed with the development of electronic digital computers and robotics. These technologies depend on deep physical understanding of the physical behavior of semiconductors and other materials for sensing and information processing. Magneto-electric relay switching networks for telephone communication have evolved into solid-state and optical technologies for switching packets of information through the Internet, so that we perceive as instantaneous our access to information from sources that are thousands of kilometers distant. The World Wide Web itself originated in the aim of physics community to rapidly share discoveries and ideas. All of this as well as advanced display, sound reproduction, and imaging technologies are now packed into hand-held information and communication devices available to human beings all around the globe.
In the context of these amazing technical advances, we now ask: what can physicists conceive and do so that our tremendous capacity to generate and share information improves the well-being of all people?
Topics to consider
Generation of information
- Human voice
- Human created images
- Human created symbols:
- writers, reporters, office workers,
- census takers,…
- Sensor systems
- Internet of things
- Imaging systems
- Physical processes
Storage of information
Processing of information
- Logic systems
- Arithmetic processing
- Physical modes
- molecular / DNA
Transmission of information (communication)
- Physical delivery, acoustic, wire, cable
- transmission line, radio, microwave,
- Free-space optical, optical fiber, satellite,…
- Peer-to-peer networks and resilient communication
- Error checking
Distribution of information / information networks
- Broadcast / physical switching / packet switching /
- Batch / Streaming
Display of information
- Media: print, film, audio, electronic display, …
Protection of information
Quantification of information
Assimilation of data into information frameworks / high throughput systems
Understanding information / human uniqueness
15 Art, craft, hobbies, and entertainment
Physics models our visual perception and how this affects both the methods of an artist and the experience of a viewer. The physical behavior of artistic materials like paints, varnishes, and canvases as well as the interaction of these materials with light and other aspects of the environment influences both the preparation and preservation of art works. Physical phenomena can be the subject of art; they can also be the medium within which artistic work is expressed. Sometimes physics tools and artistic tools overlap: consider lithography and etching. Physical methods are used in characterizing and authenticating famous works of art. Photography is fundamentally based on physical effects and technologies and yet can be strongly guided by artistic intentions. Sculpture requires specialized shaping and manipulation of materials, sometimes requiring (for large sculptures) the balance and manipulation of large forces.
Art blends into craft as the objects of preparation overlap with objects for use, from pottery to glassware to wooden bowls to clothing. Intricate manipulation of tools and materials is usually done by hand but with keen understanding of physical properties. Indeed, craft is a wonderful opportunity to mentally engage directly with the physical nature of things.
Musical instruments are exquisite and often subtle physical devices. The psychoacoustics of musical tones mixes physics with neuroscience, psychology, and culture. Public performances – musical and theatrical – now often involve sophisticated physical controls of sound and light. Stagecraft, from the creation of sets and props to the real-time manipulation of scenes, involves modeling, planning, and execution of coordinated physical manipulation.
Commercial films now use elaborate special effects. Some are computer-animated and the underlying software has sophisticated “physics engines” and algorithms for generating scense such as fractal landscapes. Other special effects require sophisticated and often daring manipulation of real physical phenomena, from elaborate stunts to carefully timed and placed explosions.
Art serves physics and science in many ways. There is an intriguing overlap between the creativity involved in both arenas: think of the work of Leonardo da Vinci. We speak of “beauty” and “elegance” in describing mathematical equations and theories. We may use artistic tools and artistic sensibilities in visualizing data or depicting abstract concepts like fields, wavefunctions, and space-time.
Topics to consider
Principles of artistic composition, e.g. perspective, color blends and contrasts
Physical aspects of visual perception
Physical behavior of artistic materials during artistic creation
Overlap of physics and artistic production methods, e.g. photo-lithography, etching
Physical interaction of artistic materials and works with light; iridescence
Physical characterization of works of art: paint, canvas, effects of aging and environment
Art preservation and restoration; effects of environment
Packing and shipping artistic works
Phenomena art (e.g. behavior of water, flames, etc.); artistic use of natural pattern formation
Using physical processes to make art (e.g. electric discharges)
Technical aspects of photography
Managing materials and forces in sculpture
Technically sophisticated and/or interactive art installations
Artistic aspects of data visualization
Artistic representation of physical ideas and abstractions, e.g. fields, quantum wave functions, supernovae, space-time, etc.
Relating aesthetics in art to aesthetics in judging theories to be “beautiful” or “elegant” (truth and beauty)
Relationship of artistic and scientific creativity
Physics of musical instruments
Physics of hearing
Psychoacoustics of musical tones
Physics of sensation of rhythm
Exploiting physical principles when shaping craft objects
Thermal processing of craft materials
Physical behavior of craft materials, e.g. glass, ceramics, wood, metals
Tools used in art, craft & hobbies
Physical scaling for realistic hobby models
The overlap between amateurism and professionalism in the pursuit of science
Physics used in stagecraft and theater production
Sound and light for performances
Engaging other senses for audiences
Physics “engines” for animation software
Simulated fractal landscapes
16 Sports and recreation
Sports is a beautiful laboratory for physics. Indeed, many books exist that explore the physics of specific sports. The physics of impacts and trajectories governs most sports involving balls. Aerodynamics and fluid dynamics are key to optimal performance in a wide range of sporting events. Sports equipment – from tennis racquets to downhill skis – are exquisitely designed to use materials in clever ways. Professional and Olympic-level sports are so highly competitive that the contribution of any measure to shave a few milliseconds off of a race will attract interest. Of course, methods to improve safety for sports are very important. And for amateurs, the thoughtful design of sports equipment – making it more lightweight, durable, affordable, and easier to use – can improve enjoyment. T
his is especially true of equipment for fitness and outdoor recreation (hiking, biking, etc.) where an arduous task may become challenging but pleasurable thanks to good equipment. Sports clothing is equally essential to good enjoyment and even to safety and health; the design of footwear is the basis of large and well-recognized industries. Advanced technologies are enlisted to film and broadcast sporting events, including first-person viewpoints obtained with wearable cameras. Finally, and importantly, physical technologies expand the opportunity of sports and recreation to people whose injuries and physical impairments would have historically prevented participation. Events like the para Olympics and special Olympics show how much universal joy is achieved when ingenuity and compassion let all humans reveal their mental drive and physical capacities through sports.
Topics to consider
Physics of ball sports
- (American) Football
- Water polo
- Table tennis
- Roller derby / inline hockey
- Ultimate frisbee
Physics of Olympics (see also water sports and martial arts; ball sports)
- Track & field
- Swimming & diving
- Weight lifting
- Alpine skiing
- Ski jumping
- Nordic skiing, biathlon
- Bobsleigh, luge, skeleton
- Water skiing
Physics of martial arts, boxing
Physics in specialized outdoor recreation
- Mountain climbing
- Scuba diving
Physics of extreme sports & human endurance
Physics of motor sports
- Formula 1
- Drag racing
Specialty games and recreation
- Pool / snooker
- Ax throwing
Sports physiology and training
Physics of assistive technologies for para-athletes
Fitness and performance monitoring
Sports clothing including footwear
Hiking & camping equipment
Sports photography and broadcasting
Sports facility design
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17 Hospitality and personal services
Human services such as hotels, restaurants, and body care (hair care, massage, etc.) employ many people: think of students and early-career actors who work restaurant jobs. Correspondingly, a significant portion of discretionary spending and time are devoted to these activities. But how is it possible to connect this with physics? Some aspects overlap with other applications of physics: hotels are part of the built environment discussed in another category, requiring ventilation, lighting, plumbing, etc. Restaurants employ physical methods for food production, albeit at a much larger scale. How can we discover ways in which physics connects with aspects that are defining components of these human services?
One way is to model these as systems that require fairly complex coordination of inputs and outputs: raw food coming into a restaurant or a banquet hall is prepared for timely delivery to many (perhaps hundreds of) guests. Physics can model and guide such flows. Are there more tangible forms that physics can take in this category? Since hospitality and personal services all connect to a significant degree with providing physical comfort, this is a domain subject to physics-assisted design. How do we take the ordinary “things for daily living” like bed linens and push them to extraordinary quality? How do we accommodate guests with special needs? How can safe and effective services be provided to homeless or refugee populations? How do we conceptualize giving people special experiences – such as spas or unusual dining - and use physical instruments to assist with this kind of service?
The idea of special experiences rises to a new level in the context of resorts, cruise ships, and even wilderness campgrounds, where provisioning for human security, comfort, and engagement can require more extensive measures. Another aspect of design concerns the tools that hospitality and personal care staff use. Hair stylists, for example, concern themselves with repetitive motion disorder from the continuous use of scissors and other implements, while good lighting and mirrors are essential components of their workplace. The domains of hospitality and personal services overlap with education and health care when we include childcare and eldercare. We can also consider pet care services. While these are much different populations, they all reflect the fact that the work expectations of contemporary society often limit the ability of families to take on these care roles by themselves. What opportunities exist to enhance the service to these clients using new devices and processes? And finally, thinking of busy adults, we can imagine ways that robotics and automation can bring to ordinary households some of the personal services that are by provided to the wealthy by in-the-home staff.
Topics to consider
- Meeting basic needs
- Food, sleep, shelter, security, community
- Empathic host who anticipates a guest’s needs
- Secure, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing environment
- Novel experiences (within safe limits)
- Convenience of services; room service, concierge, store, business center, etc.
- Access to multiple means of communication
- Ease of movement; handling of luggage
- Space to meet and associate with others
- Resilience to varied guest behavior
- Health care accommodation
- Pet accommodation
- Rapid and efficient cleaning and renewal
- Responsive and competent in handling emergencies
- Resilience to natural phenomena (e.g. hurricanes)
- Resilience to public health emergencies
Disrupting business models
- Cruise ships
- Ocean tourism
- Space tourism
- Government tourism bureaus
Restaurants & catering services
- Safe dining during health emergencies
- Unusual dishes and individual menu-item customization using techniques derived from the physics of foods and cooking
- Expanded business opportunities in bringing food to additional populations / people in need
- Large-scale service logistics
- beauty salons
- barbershops (as community centers)
- nail treatment, manicures, pedicures
- tattooing (and tattoo removal)
- body massage (has health care aspects)
- fitness centers (overlaps with sports)
- childcare / day care / nannies
- care for the disabled
- pet care
- Personal assistants
- Traditional maids, butlers, valets
- Robotic alternatives to the above?
18 Materials production
The topic of materials is both a category of technical competencies – knowing how to select and use specific materials – and a major area of human activity. Here we focus on the latter aspect, thinking about the large-scale dedication of human effort to gathering and refining raw materials and then to distributing the resulting products to manufacturers and individual users. In the mining industry, finding and extracting the ores from which we derive metals and other useful materials is rich in applications of physics. As obvious deposits become depleted, we need more sophisticated methods for locating ore deposits. Then there are prospects for improving the safety and efficiency of extraction processes while also lessening the adverse environmental impacts. Extraction of materials from the oceans is likely to be open to much more development.Forestry is a completely different realm of raw material production, potentially capable of being a renewable source of materials. Agriculture produces materials for textiles: while renewable in many ways, current practices consume large amounts of energy and water so there is much opportunity for improvement.
Thinking more broadly, how can the realm of renewable material production using living organisms be extended to include plastics, oils, solvents, and even refined inorganic minerals? Physics also serves the technical issues associated with bulk storage and transport of raw materials: how do we effectively collect and move thousands of tons of matter in various forms? Once materials arrive at refining plants, large scale processes exchange matter and energy to bring about the necessary changes: there is a great contrast in scales, in which molecular-level changes are carried out with quantities of thousands of tons. It is intriguing to think about ways to bring down the scale of production so that sophisticated materials refinement can be provided at distributed locations, perhaps both in urban centers that mix in recycled stock and in remote villages that are close to specific feedstock. How might such medium-scale processes be conducted very far away on the surface of the moon or Mars or asteroids?
Topics to consider
Finding raw materials (prospecting)
Materials from the ocean
Agricultural materials production (e.g. cotton)
Biotechnology for materials production
Chemical processing and bulk chemical production
Small-scale materials production systems
- Production in developing countries
- Production in remote locations
Materials production in space (microgravity)
Materials purification and refinement
- Soft materials
Technical materials production
- Optical materials
Materials production in standard stock forms
- Metal wire, bar, sheet, plate
- Plastic powder, bar, film, sheet
Biomaterials Materials testing
Preventing materials degradation and failure
The identification of a human being as homo faber, “man the creator (or maker),” shows how our capacity to fabricateobjects is intrinsic to our nature. Working with our hands gives us intimate physical connection with things, shaping in our mind various schema for how nature works. With the industrial revolution, the human capacity to make objects was hugely expanded and the reliability of manufacturing processes came to depend critically on a correct understanding of the synthesis of energy supplies, mechanical motions and forces, material behavior, and structural assembly into rapid and reproducible production of items that we need. Lately, manufacturing also embeds sophisticated technologies for control and information processing into many products. Also, products like cell phones, electric appliances, and automobiles rely upon carefully designed and constructed physical infrastructures for communication, energy delivery, and transportation.
New challenges have emerged as a consequence of the very success that manufacturing provided to sustain human population growth. We must think more carefully about the use of materials and production methods that are sustainable,so that future generations will not lose their opportunity to enjoy the same richness of physical goods. We are long past the point in which we could ignore the impact of manufacturing processes on the environment, including both our own living conditions and the conditions in which an essential diversity of life exists on our planet. At the same time, exciting opportunities exist to use physics to provide new capabilities in manufacturing, from molecular-scale assembly to highly flexible production “on demand” of objects when and where we need them. The expansion of human presence into space and soon, perhaps, onto other planets heightens the need to optimize the use of energy, materials, and processes to make things that support our well-being, enable our enjoyment of life, and continue our growth of knowledge.
Topics to consider
Conventional manufacturing processes
e.g. metal machining
e.g. plastic injection molding
Tool and die making
Advanced manufacturing processes
e.g. 3D printing
e.g. laser cutting
Fastening and joining technologies and processes
Surface treatments and coatings
Robotics for manufacturing
Supply-chain management and control
Production systems monitoring and control
Inspection and quality control
Mass customization Community, local and craft manufacturing
20 Technical supplies, equipment, and services
A large fraction of objects and services produced in a complex society are not intended for personal use by people but instead as means-to-an-end for business, industry, and government. Indeed, “business-to-business” expositions and directories facilitate this major area of commerce. Products range from office supplies & equipment to heavy machinery, while services might include laboratory analysis and aerial photography. The adroit use of these products and services falls within the realm of technical competencies; here we are concerned more with the human effort and organizations provide these resources and how physics can aid this large area of human activity. Indeed, Fortune-500 companies like General Electric, IBM, 3M, provide a broad range of products for commercial use, while thousands of niche businesses fill very specific needs through the capabilities of highly-trained technical staff. As one example, consider the production of high-temperature superconducting wire: who provides this and how does their business work across the whole spectrum of production, technical sales, and distribution?
One need only look over a comprehensive list of technical competency domains – ranging from safety equipment to measurement devices & services to materials handling equipment to production machinery to optical technologies to facilities for harsh environments – to realize that the scope of activity and the potential for employment of physicists is quite broad. Perhaps some challenging questions for inventive physicists might be: are there new physical applications that cross a wide spectrum of business and industrial needs? (Electrical energy, computer and communications technologies certainly grew into vast enterprises for this purpose.) In contrast, is there an important niche where a narrowly-focused business – say tree cutting along roadways and near homes – can be reconceptualized to include some new way of using physics? In between, are there common retail business operations like food distribution or home maintenance supply that rely on key services and products to function competitively, such as processes and equipment to monitor inventory and stock shelving? Or finally, starting with a particular domain of physics – say particle physics – what applications to commerce can be found - such as neutron activation analysis used for product or container inspection?
Topics to consider
What supplies, equipment, and services are needed for any of these technical resource domains?
01 Design & early prototyping
02 Safety & hazardous materials
03 Hand tools & handheld power tools
06 Chemical methods
07 Energy & power systems
08 Measurement & sensors
09 Spectroscopic & analytical instrumentation
10 Structural systems
11 Buildings, labs & work areas
12 Geotechnics, hydraulics &
13 Machines & mechanisms
16 Rigging & materials handling
17 Rotating, vibrating& chaotic systems
18 Sound & ultrasound
19 Fluid systems
20 Thermal systems
21 Vacuum & high pressure
22 Electronic test & measurement
23 Analog electronics & electronics construction
24 Radio frequency & microwave systems
25 Digital logic, FPGAs, microprocessors & microcontrollers
26 Computer-aided data acquisition and control
21 Marketing, distribution, sales, and rental
Connecting consumers and businesses with the products, materials, resources, and services that they need is an essential part of human civilization. We obtain items and services in many ways: through visits to retail outlets, through online ordering, through interaction with sales representatives, etc. We can buy or rent; we can pay through cash, check, credit, and evolving new methods of direct electronic payment. Bringing goods to market and to the consumer occurs through complex networks of communication and transportation that are global in scope. The providers of the items and services must in turn constantly identify customer needs and make sure customers are aware of the products available: hence the field of marketing. We may take all of this for granted (or in some cases we may find it intrusive when we are confronted by strident advertising)…but how does physics connect with this realm of human activity?
At the retail store we see many physical technologies at work: bar codes and QR codes are scanned for pricing and inventory management. RFID tags and other measures help prevent theft and provide data for inventory control. The optical scanners, radio transceivers, and detectors used for this work are intricate devices that exploit several physical effects. Signage and product displays may use interesting physical technologies, including LED arrays, flat-screen displays, animated mechanical motions, special lighting, audio, etc. Point of sale technologies recognize, count, and dispense cash, process credit cards, verify checks, and carry out encrypted wireless purchasing.
At a deeper level, physics plays an important role in providing purchasers with fact-based information about product specifications and performance. Special organizations use sophisticated laboratory and instrumental methods to test and report on the safety, durability, and performance of products. Physical process modeling helps ensure that the flow of products through ordering and distribution networks is timely and efficient. Distributed sensing systems and robotics track and move goods through warehouses and into various channels of distribution. At the level business-to-business commerce, such technologies enable just-in-time supply ordering and delivery, eliminating waste and reducing costs. At the individual consumer level, technologies for tracking specific items and monitoring their condition can be used in rental and other types of shared access to goods.
Devices can help order supplies for people with special needs, especially for those who might be physically impaired. For more general consumers, drones and robots are being considered for individual delivery of purchased items. Finally – and importantly – on a global scale, the accumulation and assimilation of physical data about water supply, crop yields, weather, road conditions, and many other factors creates a system to guide the delivery of food, medicine, clothing, materials, and tools that helps move people out of poverty and can – in situations driven to extremes by both natural and human causes – mean the difference between life and death.
Topics to consider
Market identification & segmentation
- Market growth & merchandising
- Customer co-development of products
Appealing to potential buyers
- Promotions and discounts
- Purchase recommendations
- Direct sales
- Storefront / bricks & mortar
- Market stall
- Vending machines
- Franchises / pyramids
- Web-based catalog (also mail order)
- Web-based from private individuals
- Technical product sales and marketing – technical sales rep
Product fulfillment: sourcing and delivering ordered goods
- Robotic pick and place
- Intra-warehouse transport and collection
- Managing product returns, including inspection & restocking
- Product recalls
Shipment options (see also transportation)
- Conventional carriers
- Human delivery services
- Concierge purchasing
- Autonomous vehicle delivery
- Drone delivery
Product tracking and inventory
- Bar / QR codes and scanners
- Point of sale inventory
- In-store product management
- Pricing labels and displays
- Special environments (e.g. cold containers)
- Expired product removal
- Purchasing Technologies
- Cash registers
- In-cart checkout
Methods of payment
- Labor (as in coops)
Customer shopping aids
- Shopping baskets and carts
- Shopping bags and other containers
- Product locators
- Curbside pickup
- Retail sales clerk / cashier
- Customer service representative
- Home Depot style “associates”
Resale of used & surplus goods
22 Finance, insurance, and real estate
As financial markets have become more sophisticated in their models and services and more highly automated with computer-based trading, physicists came into (relatively) high demand because of their analytical and computational skills. Books have even been written about the overlap between finance and physics and, more generally, about the employment of “quants” to develop sophisticated financial instruments. Beyond this high-profile work, where can physics intersect with the abstract but essential world of financial transactions? At the level of individual consumers, physical devices such as credit-card scanners, chip readers, and encrypted wireless exchanges are central to everyday payments. At larger level of bank loans and investment, physicists help with the due-diligence process of examining the true capabilities and consequent value of a business whose primary assets are sophisticated technologies. Similarly, in the realm of insurance and real-estate, physicists could provide objective assessment of structural assets and of failures: famously, Richard Feynman was adamant about paying attention to physical realities in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Other aspects of evaluation, such as surveying on the ground and using drones, can employ physical devices and methods of data analysis.
At a completely different level of financing – and arguably one that is vastly more important – how can physicists work with others to conjoin clever technical design with equally clever pathways to ownership to help bring nutrition, material well-being, health, and security to vast portions of the human population whose income may be only a dollar per day? We are living in a time when monetary wealth has become extremely concentrated and automation of production and office services has displaced large numbers of workers; at the same time, communications technology has become widely distributed, so that the global population is all-too-aware of inequities. Can thoughtful and compassionate development of physical devices and processes be a democratizing influence that prepares us for a better world in which a thriving life is the achievable expectation of all people?
Topics to consider
Money and its origins
- Cash flow
- Future of money
- Tracking stolen money
- Identifying counterfeit money
- Magnetic strip
Coin and bill operated machines
Fast communications in trading
Microeconomics, multi-variate optimization, and operations planning
Supporting a guaranteed minimum income
Meeting physical necessities
Financing major science projects
- Science return on investment
- Quantifying physical risks
Managing risk through models of uncertainty
- Black-Sholles equation
- Physicists on Wall Street
Mortgages and other long-term loans
Analogs to compound interest
Surveying property boundaries
Home inspections (overlaps with Homes and Buildings)
Technical due diligence
23 Management, administration, legal services, and government
A variety of technologies support the activities of management, which include planning, organizing, staffing, directing, informing, and controlling. Computers, of course, have become a central tool, with applications ranging from project management software to spreadsheets for accounting and financial projections to all sorts of presentation software. Beyond this, how would physics play a role? One aspect that we’ve seen in earlier categories is the capacity of physics and its conceptual constructs to model dynamic processes: the term “factory physics” was coined to describe this application of physics to management, particularly in the realm of production. Now the “internet of things” provides managers with extraordinary new tools to collect and assimilate data about real-world processes, support field technicians and sales staff, and even be aware of customer activities and preferences. Presently the internet of things has focused on sensing systems.
New avenues for using physics lie in the arena of internet-coupled actuator technologies; these allow an entire closed-cycle, coupled to management oversight, to acquire data, make decisions, implement changes, and verify outcomes…in real time. All of this, of course, translates into the domain of government and public services. A key additional role for physicists in government is to provide scientific and technical advice to legislators and executive authorities. This has become especially important in decision making with long-term consequences, such as measures to deal with climate change. Physicists similarly advise legal counsels, acting as expert witnesses and providing technical advice for contracts dealing with advanced technologies. Finally, all of these areas are supported by administrative staff who in turn use a variety of office equipment. A physicist invented the photocopier machine and there certainly must be many opportunities to invent and develop new technologies to support office functions.
Topics to consider
Document processing equipment
Office equipment and furniture
Meeting support and presentation equipment
Aids to management functions
- Systems modeling
Office administration functions
- Handling calls and correspondences
- Scheduling meetings
- Filing and record keeping
- Office management
Human resource functions
Law office support
- Case law search
- Client record keeping
Expert witness support
Patents and intellectual property management
Government information systems
- Big data handling
- monitoring of community infrastructure
Permits and licensing
Science technical advice on policy issues
- Language translation
- Secure communication
Treaties and treaty compliance monitoring
- Weapons ban monitoring
It would seem that human beings are born to explore: certainly this is the nature of infants as they interact with their surroundings, allowing their brains to rapidly develop. Keeping this desire for exploration strong through childhood and youth, while providing safeguards against injury and ill-judged choices, is a worthy challenge…and such exploration can certainly include the investigation of natural phenomena. Support for professional exploration is a hallmark of thriving cultures. On earth, exploration continues across geographic territories, under the land, in the ocean, and even through novel adventures in atmospheric flight.
Tools for explorers range from navigation equipment to methods for documentation (cameras, sound recorders, etc.) to all sorts of field measurement instrumentation and sample collection devices. Now the inventory of such tools includes robots, autonomous underwater vehicles, and drones. Special vehicles are designed to carry humans into inhospitable domains and special habitats likewise enable safe human encampment. In some cases, this has evolved into elaborate permanent installations, such as the base at the South Pole. Since the middle of the twentieth century, human exploration has now included venturing into outer space – first in earth orbit, then to the moon, and now (with robotic spacecraft) distant planets, their moons, comets, and asteroids.
Next big steps will be to enable humans to establish a permanent presence on the moon and to venture to Mars. While direct participation in such exploration is highly selective, it is based on a much wider network of technical development in which physicists can be deeply engaged. Finally, physical devices and methods allow large numbers of people to take a renewed look at familiar environments, seeing things at different scales, in different lights, at different speeds, etc. An example is an attachment for personal mobile phones that takes photographs in the infrared. Such physics-based tools allow homes, backyards, parks, nearby wildlands, urban spaces, schools, and workplaces to be explored in new ways, keeping a culture of exploration healthy and active in our society. This helps us make good decisions about caring for our environment and it fosters popular support for the costly but exhilarating efforts to send humans “where no one has been before.”
Topics to consider
Atmospheric and upper-atmospheric exploration
Technologies for human exploration
Technologies for robotic exploration
Near-earth orbit and space habitation
Earth's moon habitation and exploration
Planetary, moon and asteroid exploration
Long-term deep space and interstellar exploration
25 Future humans
When we think of future humans, the idea (good or bad) of genetically-altered super humans may come to mind. However, a much more basic and essential concept of “future humans” is the people who are our descendants and the situations they will encounter as a result of choices that we make during our lifetime. One key task of physics, then, is to help us anticipate the consequences of society’s choices, ranging from climate change to natural resource depletion to the evolution of drug-resistant microbes. Another big question concerns how humans can adapt to increasingly effective machine intelligence, especially if and when such intelligence achieves some form of independent consciousness?
At the next level, we can certainly see in current technology a capacity to alter living humans with various prosthetic devices and provide various types of assistive technologies. There is a range of technologies for replacing lost limbs, providing mobility, assisting with vision and hearing, using dialysis machines and heart-lung machines to sustain patients, etc. Various types of stimulators – external or implanted - aid the function of the heart, help prevent epileptic seizures, and help control Parkinson’s disease. While these are focused on helping people with ailments, we certainly see more devices augmenting healthy human capabilities. Examples include exoskeletons that assist with lifting heavy objects, robotic surgery devices that provide a human surgeon with extra precision and steadiness, augmented reality vision devices, and even the technologies that assist with operating automobiles, boats, and aircraft. All of this technology is clearly dependent on exploiting a wide range of physical principles in mechanics, transport theory, electrical behavior, etc.
Artificial organs have been under development for many years. Some are purely electromechanical, such as various designs for an artificial heart. Now the prospect is emerging to grow artificial organs from stem-cell derived tissues, even in forms that can be 3-D printed. Sensing devices and signal processors that have direct connections to the brain could restore hearing and vision. Perhaps devices to assist smell and touch are achievable as well. Physics enters through a variety of pathways, including models of membrane function, tissue cohesion, signal propagation, etc.
Ultimately we do indeed come to the issues of genetic modification. The ethical path may be relatively clear in the treatment of otherwise incurable diseases. But where should limits be placed in genetic augmentation of strength, agility, intelligence, etc. The fidelity of gene editing techniques is affected by thermodynamic fluctuations and other physical disturbances (including, of course, ionizing radiation): physics is necessary to help ensure that the process very rarely leads to unexpected, dangerous variations…and that such variations might be detected.
Humans are living longer and longer. How do we accommodate the increased life-span in terms of work, leisure, and basic sustenance? Will humans soon become immortal and how would we deal with the consequences? Will humans be able to seamlessly bond with machines, connecting thought, memory, sensation, etc.? While this has been the stuff of many science-fiction stories, emerging technologies move the potential realization closer – perhaps within decades if not sooner. Physicists engaged in developing theories of consciousness might help guide key choices in our technical development of artificial intelligence, helping us better anticipate the types of disruption that could occur when machines augment or replace our ability to think.
Topics to consider
Planning for human population sustainability
Aging Artificial and re-grown organs Advanced prosthetics
- Ethics of human alteration
- Sensory augmentation
- Muscle augmentation
- Brain augmentation
Human genetic modification