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And the survey says…

By Matin Durrani

What’s the biggest challenge in physics? What was the biggest breakthrough in the subject over the last 20 years? And do you like the fact that physicists are unpopular parties? Those were just three of the serious and not-so-serious questions in our special survey that we launched in October on this website to mark the 20th anniversary of Physics World.

The survey was just meant to be a bit of fun and we had no idea how many people would reply. But in the end 522 people had their say before we closed the survey in early December. We reckon those numbers are high enough to draw some reasonably secure conclusions. Even if not, here are the results anyway and you can draw your own.

1. What was the most important discovery in physics over the past 20 years?
From the ten choices made by the Physics World team, the clear winner — with over a quarter (26.6%) of the vote — was evidence for dark energy, discovered in 1997/8 by two teams of researchers looking at the properties of certain exploding stars called type 1a supernova. In second, was the discovery of nanotubes — rolled-up sheets of carbon atoms, the discovery of which is often (controversially) attributed to Sumio Iijima from NEC in 1991. In third, with 11.9% was Bose—Einstein condensation — the long-sought-after low-temperature state in which a cloud of atoms all fall into the same quantum state. Its discovery in 1995 led to Eric Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman sharing a Nobel Prize for Physics six years later.

2. What was the most significant popular-science book over the last 20 years?
No surprises here, with Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time scooping 42.7% of the vote. His book was published in April 1988, just six months before Physics World magazine started life. In second was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (12.3%) followed by the late Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? in third (11.2%). Bad news though for Britain’s Astronomer Royal and head of the Royal Society Martin Rees — his Just Six Numbers came tenth, picked by only two people.

3. Which of the following Nobel-prize discoveries of the last 20 years was most deserved?
To make the question easier to answer, we narrowed the choice down to include only prizes with a clear, single discovery. That meant that messy, multi-award prizes, such as the 1995 gong split between Martin Perl (for the discovery of the tau lepton) and Frederick Reinest (for the discovery of the neutrino), were excluded. Way out in front was John Mather and George Smoot’s 2006 prize for discovering the cosmic microwave background, which got over a third (33.5%) of the vote. Second was Bose—Einstein condensation in 2001 with 20.8%, while a distant third (9.8%) was the 2007 prize for Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg’s discovery of giant magentoresistance – a phenomenon behind the high storage density of many of today’s hard discs.

4. What is the biggest challenge for physicists over the next 20 years?
Never let it be said that readers are afraid of the big questions. Top challenge for them is a nice little job — unifying gravity and quantum mechanics, which exactly a quarter see as the number one problem in physics. Next up, another easy task – building a practical fusion reactor, which 18.1% opted for. Still on the energy front, developing reneweable energy resources is number three on the list, with 12.1% of the vote. Bottom, by a long margin though, is sending astronauts to Mars which only 2.6% went for — President Obama, are you listening?

5. Who or what first inspired you to take an interest in physics?
OK, on to the silly stuff. Teachers and popular-science books both played a big role in getting you turned on to physics. No surprises there, but much more interesting is when you look at all the “other” reasons listed. Readers got into physics for a huge variety of strange and bizarre motivations, ranging from “inner need”, “Omni magazine 1978”, “Star Trek” and “Stephen Hawking” to “suspicions about the Big Bang theory”, “by grace of Almighty”, “Eric Laithwaites 1967 (?) Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution”, and, er “joy and ecstasy associated with the study of physics”.

6. Would you encourage friends or relatives to study physics?
Well, for the sake of the future of the subject, let’s hope that you put your money where your mouth is. The vast majority of readers (87.4%) say they would encourage their family and friends into physics. As for the 12.6% who said they wouldn’t, all we can say is — shame on you!

7. What are your views on science and religion?
If there is one topic that our readers have strong views on, it’s religion. Nearly 53% of respondents described themselves as atheists or non-believers, whereas 34% said that they are religious. As for whether science and religion can coexist, nearly 23% believe that there is no place for religion in the universe, whereas 64% believe that the two are not mutually exclusive.

8. Which of these stereotypical character traits of physicists do you like and not like?
Physicists out for a Christmas party this year, take note. For some strange reason, over a quarter (26.1%) of us just love being unpopular at parties, two fifths 42.8%) simply adore wearing unfashionable clothes, while over two thirds (68.9%) like physicists’ geeky sense of humour. About a fifth of us even like physicists’ notorious intellectual arrogance. Could that heady brew account for the bad image that physicists have among the public?

9. Do you think physicists will have a “theory of everything” within the next 20 years?
Stephen Hawking once famously said there was a 50:50 chance of us finding a theory of everything in the next 20 years. Mind you, he said that back in 1980 and such a theory — assuming one can even be found – does not exist. That hasn’t stopped about a sixth of readers (17.8%) clinging wilfully on to that hope, although two-thirds of readers are realistic and think that there is no prospect of such a breakthrough in the next two decades. The rest – 14.5% — sit on the proverbial fence. Or maybe they are just in a quantum superposition of yes and no.

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  1. Hans Elvesjö

    Statistics above shows that over 50 % are true materialists among the physicists. I thick that is the reason why Physics and Biology will not find out What life is in The Next Fifty Years. Biologists see the function of the ecosystems according to Odum´s energy flow theory and that the organism is only made of ordinary matter. In my opinion the universe consists of two types of matter: ordinary matter and dark mirror matter. I hope for a discovery of what dark matter is in the near future!

  2. Alastair Carnegie

    “Eric Laithwaites 1967 (?) Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution”,
    YES! ME TOO!…I did not answer the survey, but who could forget Eric? We need more like him. I do remember the induction ring experiment, Professor Eric Laithwaite explained that there was a remote possibility, that if the experiment was ‘perfectly’ tuned, the ring would fly off the pole/coil. “about a thousand to one chance, so please don’t be too hopeful”……BINGO!….WHAM!…ZING!…the best flying ring ever demonstrated in public! WOW! what a lecture! Bless you Eric, and thanks for the introduction to a wonderful subject.

  3. I am not surprised by the results but my comments are about the pessimism being reflected about theory of everything. I think physics need to get out of the shell of its present set of theories. It is time we realize that our present theories, including theory of reltivity fail to explain nature.
    Someone has said that a proper theory of everything will be its own evidence. I do agree with the observation; if a theory cannot be indisuputably validated after 100 years then we must look at alternatives.
    We must promote new line of thinking and must be open to new ideas.


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