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Which physics-based technology to emerge from the Second World War has had the most significant impact on society?

By James Dacey

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There is a fascinating article in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in which the historian Paul N Edwards tries to unravel the “entangled histories” of climate science and nuclear weapons. One of Edwards’ central arguments is that climate science is only in its relatively advanced current state because of the scientific work carried out in the field of nuclear-weapons research. He backs up this assertion by tracing the histories of the different aspects of climate science, from the atmospheric models that were initially developed to monitor nuclear fallout to the facilities that were founded for nuclear purposes but have since switched to climate interests as a result of shifts in political interests.

The article got me thinking about the huge role that politics plays in the development of new technologies, particularly when there is a focused political will, such as during times of war. This was clearly evident during the second half of the 20th century when societies across the developed world were dramatically transformed by technologies that had emerged from scientific and engineering advances of the Second World War. Work and leisure have been transformed by modern computing. The invention of the jet engine opened up the world to speedy travel. Von Braun’s rocket carved a path that led us to the Moon. Radar is used to scan the skies, tracking everything from planes to clouds. The harnessing of nuclear energy transformed power supplies, while the power wielded by nuclear weapons has been a dominant theme in global politics ever since the US developed The Bomb.

Clearly, all of these technologies have had vast impacts on the world. In this week’s Facebook poll we want you to answer the following question:

Which physics-based technology to emerge from the Second World War has had the most significant impact on society?

Nuclear power/weapons
Modern computing
The jet engine
Rocket systems
Radar and microwave technology

Have your say by visiting our Facebook page, and please feel free to explain your response – or suggest an alternative technology – by posting a comment below the poll.

In last week’s poll we asked you to exercise your brain in thinking about the role that physics can play in professional sport. We asked whether you think athletes could benefit from an understanding of the physics of their sports. The outcome was as conclusive as the outcome of a race involving the average university academic and the Jamaican sprinting phenomenon Usain Bolt. 93% of respondents had strong faith in the importance of physics as they selected the option “Yes, it could help them to perfect their techniques”, while the remaining 7% chose the option “No, any knowledge would be purely theoretical”.

We asked this question in connection with the July issue of Physics World, which looks at physics and sport, including features on the physical principles underpinning sport, and the roles technology plays in enabling and enhancing sporting performance. For a limited time this special issue is available as a free PDF download.

Thank you to everyone who took part and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

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