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The End Of Physics ? (As We Know It)

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.410.1 - 2.410.5



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John P. Sokol

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3280

The End Of Physics ? (As We Know It)

Dr. John P. Sokol Penn State Fayette Campus

Other authors have discussed the impact of the end of the Cold War, with shrinking defense budgets, and the problems caused by attempts to cut the Federal budget deficit, on the level of funding for physics research and the problems new Ph.D.s in physics have in finding jobs in their field.1,2 It is even possible to look at the longer term problem caused by past projections, which were unrealistic, for continued high growth of support for science in general.3 Rather than look at the current problems as part of a temporary cycle of funding, there has likely been a fundamental change in some of the areas considered the frontier areas of physics, especially high energy particle physics.

Of the $171 billion spent on R&D in the U.S. in 1995, $29.6 billion was spent on basic research, with the Federal government supplying 58% of the funding for basic research.4 With the pressure of reducing the budget deficit, this Federal funding has to be considered at risk and there will likely be a continuing shift to more applied research. Even the National Science Foundation allocates 10% of its proposed 1997 budget to research in engineering.5 However, the linkages between physics and commercial and military applications has historically been the norm, rather than the exception.

As the information in Table 1 amply demonstrates, there has often been a fairly short span of years, at the most several decades, before fundamental physics research has led to applications of either commercial or military significance. In some cases, such as the development of electric motors and generators, the applications preceded the discovery of the fundamental processes, such as the discovery of the electron. Hence, those of us who teach electrical engineering and electrical engineering technology must deal with the fact that conventional current flow is opposite to the electron flow. Other examples are shown in Table 1.

The 1993 cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider can be viewed as a major milestone in this shift of the support for major science projects, where incidentally about half of the physicists on the project had to take jobs outside their field.6 This cancellation is less suprising if you consider that it has been 60 years since the invention of the cyclotron7 and in that time no siginificant commerical or military application has been produced. The lack of any direct benefit from this project, or even any reasonable expectations of any direct benefit had an obvious affect on its cancellation. If you want better superconducting magnets, for example, then that is what you fund, not a multi-billion dollar project was such magnets as an indirect benefit.

For all of the reasons listed above, science in general, and physics specifically is likely to go through a period of “globalization” and “downsizing” comparable to the restructuring that has taken place in American business. The transition is likely to be messy.8 The basic idea of this paper is to see if some of the approaches used by successful businesses might be applicable.

Sokol, J. P. (1997, June), The End Of Physics ? (As We Know It) Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6534

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