1.3 Physics, Technology And Society

The connection between physics, technology and society can be seen in many examples. The discipline of thermodynamics arose from the need to understand and improve the working of heat engines. The steam engine, as we know, is inseparable from the Industrial Revolution in England in the eighteenth century, which had great impact on the course of human civilisation. Sometimes technology gives rise to new physics; at other times physics generates new technology.

An example of the latter is the wireless communication technology that followed the discovery of the basic laws of electricity and magnetism in the nineteenth century. The applications of physics are not always easy to foresee. As late as 1933, the great physicist Ernest Rutherford had dismissed the possibility of tapping energy from atoms.

But only a few years later, in 1938, Hahn and Meitner discovered the phenomenon of neutron-induced fission of uranium, which would serve as the basis of nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons. Yet another important example of physics giving rise to technology is the silicon ‘chip’ that triggered the computer revolution in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

A most significant area to which physics has and will contribute is the development of alternative energy resources. The fossil fuels of the planet are dwindling fast and there is an urgent need to discover new and affordable sources of energy.

Considerable progress has already been made in this direction (for example, in conversion of solar energy, geothermal energy, etc., into electricity), but much more is still to be accomplished. Table1.1 lists some of the great physicists, their major contribution and the country of origin. You will appreciate from this table the multi-cultural, international character of the scientific endeavour.

Table 1.2 lists some important technologies and the principles of physics they are based on. Obviously, these tables are not exhaustive. We urge you to try to add many names and items to these tables with the help of your teachers, good books and websites on science. You will find that this exercise is very educative and also great fun. And, assuredly, it will never end.

The progress of science is unstoppable! Physics is the study of nature and natural phenomena. Physicists try to discover the rules that are operating in nature, on the basis of observations, experimentation and analysis.

Physics deals with certain basic rules/laws governing the natural world. What is the nature of physical laws? We shall now discuss the nature of fundamental forces and the laws that govern the diverse phenomena of the physical world.

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