Physics, Technology and Society

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What is the Role of Physics in our Society?

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Development in technology has been quite synonymous with advances in physics, and this has, over the years, influenced society beyond our wildest imagination. The indelible role of physics in society is thus wholly undeniable. Such influences and subsequent advancements could broadly be categorized as falling under two major categories - Macroscopic and Microscopic. The microscopic influence would come to include all phenomena related to atomic, molecular, and nuclear advancements. The macroscopic would consist of everything within the ambit of laboratory testing, practical effects and advancements, and astronomical associations. As may be very evident, these two categories are overlapping at times, and it is only through a close association between these two areas that the age of technology, as we know today, has come to be. 

How is Physics Related to Society and Technology?

The first significant influence that physics exerted in terms of technological development led to the introduction of the steam engine, which subsequently ushered in the age of industrialization. The steam engine worked on the laws of thermodynamics and greatly improved the efficiency of engines for starters. The applications of thermodynamics have subsequently also been used in later inventions like refrigerators, blowers, vehicles, etc. Here are some of the ways physics has left its impression on society through technological advancements.

  1. Energy Industry - The contributions that physicists like Faraday, Tesla, and Edison had on the commercialization of electricity is undoubtedly exceptional. It kick-started what is today called the age of globalization. The use of fossil fuels like petrol, diesel, coal changed everything from how the food was produced to how people traveled from one place to another. The influence was so prolific that it is difficult today to name an industry that wasn’t influenced for the better, through these developments. With increasing awareness about the growing levels of pollution today, the world has shifted to alternate and renewable sources of energy. Even this gradual shift is being overwhelmingly influenced by physics. Dams, solar panels, wind farms, nuclear reactors, the energy of the future is overwhelmingly dominated and influenced by the physics of today. 

  2. IT Industry - The IT industry has been spearheaded by the extensive proliferation of computers in our daily lives, thus giving rise to the modern MNCs as we know them today. While the computer may not have been developed exclusively on the foundation of physics, the subsequent infrastructure, including the once ancillary but now vital data processing and network speeds, have been largely contributions of physics. For starters, John Bardeen was instrumental in the development of transistors, and the theory of superconductivity, factors that led to the development of the early computer. The use of lasers was pioneered by C.H. Townes, which is now used from microsurgery to the most commonly used computer mouse. Even the use of optical fibers is based on the principle of total internal reflection of light. Optical fibers ensure better connectivity speeds and minimal data loss, thereby ensuring faster processing speeds and better reception of signals.

  3. Medical Industry - In the medical industry, physics has been especially essential in radiology. W.K. Roentgen discovered the X-rays, which is today the most popular, conclusive, and inexpensive method of determining fractures in the body. Ultrasonography works on the principle of reflection of ultrasonic waves and forms an essential part of both the medical as well as the defense industry. Another singular influence has been the use of nuclear medicine to cure diseases. Nuclear medicine today includes therapies that use radioactive elements to treat conditions like hyperthyroidism and certain types of lymphoma. 

  4. Communications Industry - In this case, by the communications industry, we refer both to the telecom and television industry, which has connected the world digitally as well as the commercial vehicular industry like airlines which has made physical travel between places extremely easy. Telephones and televisions operate on the principle of electromagnetic waves. The generation of electromagnetic waves was first shown by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. Airplanes, on the other hand, at the fundamental level, operate on Bernoulli’s principle. 

  5. Contributions that Went Beyond a Single Industry - There are various other discoveries that physics propagated that went on to change the society in more ways than one. These include:

  • Principle of levers and carriers - Archimedes

  • Galilean Telescope, Gaseous Thermometer - Galileo Galilei

  • Geometric Optics - Johannes Kepler

  • Law of Elasticity - Robert Hooke

  • Expanding nature of the universe - Edwin Hubble

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1) What are Some of the Most Common Influences of Physicists on our Daily Life?

Ans: Some of the most commonly asked questions in physics today pertain to questions about technology and society. In this regard, it is essential to remember some of the most famous physicists who have influenced our society. Here’s a list of a few such physicists: 

  • James Clerk Maxwell - Electromagnetic field

  • J.J. Thomson - Discovered the electron

  • Neils Bohr - Theory of atomic structure

  • Paul Dirac - Predicted existence of antimatter

  • Enrico Fermi - Instrumental in the development of the first nuclear reactor as a part of the Manhattan Project.

  • Isaac Newton -Discovery of gravity

  • John Dalton - Dalton’s atomic theory

  • W. K. Roentgen - Discovery of X-rays

  • Jagdish Chandra Bose - Discovered ultra-short radio waves

2) How has Nuclear Physics Revolutionized the way we Generate and use Power?

Ans: In a world where pollution has become a problem affecting the global population unanimously, the search for cleaner alternatives to energy production led to the evolution of nuclear power as a source of renewable energy. A nuclear reactor uses a process known as nuclear fission to split atoms of nuclear elements, usually Uranium. Splitting the atoms into smaller atoms and neutrons subsequently causes a chain reaction, which generates a lot of energy in the form of heat. This heat is subsequently used to produce steam and, in turn, run turbines that generate electricity. Since the process ideally does not involve the release of any major greenhouse gases, the source is termed as a renewable source of energy.