Application of Physics

My previous blog might reasonably have prompted the questions, “What does a Physicist do?” and “What’s the impact on Business?” The first answer I ever read was in the Propaedia to The Encyclopaedia Britanica and was written by Claus Moser, the influential Chief Scientific Advisor to Harold Wilson during the “White Heat of Technology”. He suggested Mathematicians are the Makers Possible, Physicists the Makers Probable and Engineers, the Makers Practical.

This view is patently false since mankind made many inventions long before any form of modern scientific understanding. The Moser view also gave weight to an intellectual pecking order with maths at the top and the dirty finger-nailed engineer at the bottom. This too is false and most commercially successful inventions today actually need the team approach, in which each plays their part.

I can illustrate the point with reference to this year’s clutch of awards from the Institute of Physics. You can see the list for yourself at http://www.iop.org/activity/awards/page_35485.html

The true business impact is more obvious in the other award winners. Here there were two clear areas of recent activity, deserving the attention of the business community.

One was the application of Physics to medicine. This year the winner was Dr Rachel McKendry, chosen for the successful commercial development of sensors for rapid disease diagnostics and antibiotic drug screening applications. She has shown how the deep understanding of the physics target molecules of disease and drug intervention, added to the fundamental physics of vibration and resonance, has produced not only medical understanding but has led directly to commercial applications, rolling out to hospitals world-wide.

No less than three prize winners were in different aspects of electronic polymers or plastics. I guess this represents both the surprise and the impact that this subject has produced. For a long time, plastics remained a boring material to physicists, important only for its strength, ease of manufacture and electrical insulation. Physicist pioneers of the 1990s changed all that and together our prize winners are demonstrating, flat panel displays, full electronic circuits and solar cells. You can read for yourself the possible future of this technology in a book by one of our winners Richard Jones, “Soft machines” and its associated website http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/

I want to finish by mentioning one other of our prize winners, Donal Bradley. He won the Faraday Medal also for his work in plastic electronics. His father, Dan Bradley, was well known in Belfast as a Professor at Queens University and a great pioneer and publicist of the laser, often noted at that time as a solution looking for a problem and today a household item. Pioneering genius obviously runs in the family and I reckon the business community should be paying a lot of attention to Donal and the other physicists of today.

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