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Physics technologies that could change the world

By James Dacey

Last night, the Nobel Laureate Andre Geim gave a talk in Bristol – hosted by Physics World ­– in which he told a lovely anecdote about the difference between fundamental research and the development of new technologies. Geim, who shared his Nobel in 2010 for his experiments with graphene, described an occasion during a holiday when he took a boat tour to watch dolphins. To the joy of Geim and the crew, these graceful animals glided up alongside the boat as if they were pining for human interaction. The physicist joined the others in reaching over the side of the boat to touch these magnificent beasts, and for a few minutes everyone delighted in the moment.  Then suddenly the paradise was lost. To his shock, Geim heard the voice of a little boy behind him: “Mum, can we eat them?”

The point Geim was making was that, for him, it is enough to marvel at the wonder of graphene without necessarily “eating it” by turning it into commercial products. Geim does appreciate, however, that every so often a fundamental discovery does come along (as in the case of graphene) where the potential spin-offs are simply too delicious to resist. The tale of the boy and the dolphin was Geim’s poetic way of saying that he is going to stick with the pure physics, while it is the job of others to speculate about the potential technological uses of his research.

Here at Physics World, we love to have our dolphin and eat it*. Regular visitors to this site will know that we report on the big breakthroughs in fundamental research, but we also have a healthy stream of content about some of the possible applications of physics. For the 25th anniversary of Physics World we have gone to town and produced a series of films about some of the emerging technologies from physics research that have the potential to transform the world. Just like the people who claim flying cars are just around the corner, we are undoubtedly setting ourselves up for a big fall. But hey ho, the arrogance of youth. We’ll only be 25 once.

The first film in the series looks at graphene’s potential to address the world’s water needs. The video looks at the idea of using graphene-based membranes to selective filter to remove salt and impurities from water.

The second film looks at the rise of quantum computers. Such devices, which would exploit superposition, entanglement and other quantum phenomena to perform super-fast calculations, have the potential for some amazing feats.

The final film explores the idea of creating a “perfect lens” using metamaterials. Such a device could open up a brave new world of scientific investigation, particularly in nanotechnology and the biosciences.

These videos appeared initially in the digital version of the October issue of Physics World, which can be accessed by all members of the Institute of Physics. This is a special issue to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Physics World and is also available (minus the videos) as a free PDF download.

* This is a figure of speech, we don’t actually eat dolphins.

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3 comments

  1. Jonathan Puthoff

    I think the general public has little understanding of the differences between pure research, applied research, and product development. From the outside, all of these activities must look very similar: people in white coats mucking about with microscopes, etc. I think a major component of basic science education should be about the connection between research for its own sake and common technological devices and processes.

  2. John H

    “This is a figure of speech, we don’t actually eat dolphins.”

    And a good thing too. The mice would be furious.

  3. Antonis Kalomenopoulos

    Excellent… Applied Research and Technology Development is conducted by “carnivores” only interested in “eating dolphins”… That is, technocrats with no feelings..

    Not the best perspective for the “Innovation Union” vision…

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