Tomorrow’s Technology Depends on Today’s Physics

Did you know that you already love physics? Consider the technology around you.

Your computer’s microchips were built from transistors using quantum physics. GPS navigation? Sensitive to nanosecond calculations derived from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. PET scans use 3D body-imaging made possible by particle physics. Even the World Wide Web serving you this article was a creation of physics—conceived by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN to transfer large physics data files.

Handheld GPS device.
Handheld GPS device.

Today’s technology is so rooted in physics that our way of life depends upon it. The increased computational power and higher standard of living derived from physics-based technology allows us to pursue a deeper understanding of physics, again leading to improved technology—and so on.

Or at least it should. The problem? The connection between physics research and technology is only obvious in hindsight. In reality, many discoveries defy immediate practical application, and it can take decades for pure research to turn into ubiquitous, easily recognizable technologies like GPS.

This matters because funders can mistake pure research for a luxury instead of a necessity. For this reason, the largest such source of funding, the government, is an inconstant ally.

Just last year, the Department of Energy cut the high energy theory physics research budget by an average of 23%. The cuts were even worse for junior researchers, with an overall decrease of more than 30%. In 2011, NASA’s Constellation Program—a five-year, $9 billion project intended to succeed NASA’s Space Shuttle program and usher in a new era of human spaceflight—was removed from the federal budget for being too expensive and behind schedule. (More on why NASA matters below.)

The problem is, in part, one of public perception and priorities. That decades-long gap between theory and application is an inconceivably long time to the instant-message generation (and yes, Wi-Fi uses physics). Without the public pressuring elected officials—whose long-term goals are usually not far beyond the next election cycle—governments assign scientific research a low budgetary priority.

The next generation will suffer from today’s lack of vision.

Edouard Brezin, Member of the Institut de France, makes the case for prioritizing science like this, “How else can we face the challenge to reduce or contain carbon emissions, find the means to feed the estimated 9 billion people expected by the year 2050, continue the fight against poverty, provide adequate healthcare, and meet the challenge for the continued existence of Earth as we know it?”

NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis.
NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Investment in fundamental research (beyond just pure physics) is not merely beneficial for technology—it also stimulates economic growth.

In 1962, NASA established the Technology Utilization Plan which makes NASA technologies available to the commercial marketplace. The research pioneered at NASA has led to nearly 1,800 spinoff technologies including cellphone cameras, breast cancer detection software, and airplane wing design so efficient it has saved over 2 billion gallons of jet fuel. For every $1 invested in NASA, spinoffs have boosted the economy by $7 to $14.

This is not breaking news, however, and still government funding for science is fickle. So, as government funding ebbs and flows, where else might we turn for more consistent support?

A recent trend has been for the ultra-wealthy to support scientific research, whether out of curiosity or personal interest. Vulnerability to disease, for example, is not dependent upon one’s financial status, and many patrons have used their affluence to advance medical research in fields relevant to them personally. While this may be partly out of self-interest, the benefits of such charity apply to the global community.

As Ashutosh Jogalekar notes, “The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation which was funded by well to do individuals whose children were stricken by the devastating disease gave about $70 million to Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The infusion partly allowed Vertex to create Kalydeco, the first truly breakthrough drug for treating a disease where there were essentially no options before.”

While such support is certainly welcome, the future of science can no longer be solely determined behind lab doors and at private galas. An alternative? In recent years, crowdfunding has emerged as one of the most successful and democratic applications of technology—and I have found, it’s a great way to plug the the public directly into scientific research and support exciting new projects.

This is the reason I recently founded Fiat Physica, a physics crowdfunding organization in which many individuals make modest donations (beginning at just a few dollars) towards a larger goal.

Fiat Physica allows the public to engage in physics research, education and outreach at an unprecedented level. Each of our physics campaigns offers “perks,” or rewards for donations, to encourage participation. These could range from high-resolution digital photographs to personal interaction with the research team and, at the highest levels, even co-authorship and endowments. And it isn’t just about funding—it’s also about outreach.

We maintain a vibrant social media group for physics enthusiasts and have a blog where we post articles tying abstract concepts to concrete, everyday examples. And for those who’d like to meet in person, we sponsor monthly gatherings in New York City to discuss physics in a relaxed environment.

I do not believe that crowdfunding will ever replace conventional sources of support such as government grants, private foundations or individual patrons. Rather, I consider it as providing a new opportunity for the public to become more engaged with the physics community, especially for projects which are not supported by such conventional means.

Wayne Gretzsky said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” And crowdfunding is the future of basic research funding and support.

Dr. Mark G. Jackson is a native of Portland, Oregon and received his PhD in superstring cosmology from Columbia University in 2004. He then performed postdoctoral research at the Fermilab, the Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Paris Center for Cosmological Physics, the Institut du Astrophysique de Paris, and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

He recently moved to New York City to found Fiat Physica (Twitter: @fiatphysica.). 

This is a tremendously exciting time in the physics community, and the public can now directly participate. Fiat Physica is building and seeking relationships with foundations and companies who support fundamental physics research and education.

Image Credit:; NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson is Scientific Lead of Business Development at Cambridge Quantum Computing. Dr. Jackson draws on this variety of deep expertise in scientific innovations, computational technology and space exploration to engage with the Singularity University community. As Core Faculty in Exponential Technology his responsibilities have included developing curriculum, delivering presentations, writing, and appearing in video expositions about quantum computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and others. He has delivered lectures in 19 countries, and spoken as an expert on multiple panels. Recognizing the emerging importance of data science, Jackson has completed intense training in statistics, machine learning, programming, project design, and communication. In particular, he has been closely following the evolution of quantum computing, maintaining close connections with industrial leaders as the next generation of computers becomes reality. He has lectured and privately consulted with corporate executives on how quantum computing will disrupt their field. Jackson recently organized the Dawn of Private Space Science symposium bringing together leading scientists, foundations, corporations, policy makers, and commercial spacelines under one roof to create opportunities for scientific research in space. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the BoldlyGo Institute, a non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest. Last year he co-organized the NASA SpaceApps NYC 2016, a technology development and problem solving event during which citizens from around the world collaborate to tackle challenges that improve life on Earth and further the exploration of space.
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