Physics in the 2020s: what will happen over the decade ahead – Physics World


Matin Durrani looks back at the successes in physics over the last 10 years and gazes into his crystal ball at what the future holds

As the 2020s gets underway, what can we expect to happen over the next 10 years? To get you in the mood, let’s first look back over the decade that’s now fading into the past. We kicked off the 2010s with Barack Obama one year into his science-loving presidency, CERN physicists poring over the first 7TeV collisions from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and researchers wondering if the CDMS-II experiment in the US had really obtained the first direct evidence for dark matter (answer: probably not).

Many of the successes in physics over the last decade were honoured by Physics World through our annual Breakthrough of the Year. The award was a straightforward choice in some years, especially when there’d been a big breakthrough in particle physics or astronomy. In 2012 the prize went to CERN’s discovery of the Higgs boson, in 2013 to the IceCube detector in Antarctica spotting cosmic neutrinos, and in 2016 to LIGO’s momentous discovery of gravitational waves.

Quantum physics was a burgeoning area in the 2010s too, reflecting physicists’ growing ability to experimentally probe the deepest mysteries of the subject. In 2011 the award went to work on “weak measurement”, which broke the taboo that it’s impossible to gain knowledge of the paths taken by individual photons travelling through two slits to create an interference pattern. Four years later, the prize was awarded for “double” quantum teleportation, in which physicists simultaneously transferred both a photon’s spin and its orbital angular momentum to a distant photon.

One significant cultural change in physics during the 2010s was the growing realization that physicists needs to do much more to root out inequalities in the field and make it more diverse. In fact, the decade saw some high-profile dismissals and resignations in the physics community – on the grounds of unwanted harassment of women and other groups – that in the past would have been unheard of and most likely swept under the carpet. Much of those changes came to light due to the openness wrought by the digital age.

One great hope for the decade, however, went unfulfilled: the discovery of “new” physics beyond the Standard Model. Despite 10 years of the LHC, there are still no signs of supersymmetric particles, forcing particle theorists to make progress with their mathematical wits alone. But with the LHC about to embark on an ambitious upgrade programme under the stewardship of Fabiola Gianotti, who just became the first person to be awarded a full second term as CERN boss, particle physicists will surely hope they can achieve in the next decade the dreams they held at the start of this.

The future is bright

I’m not sure for how long my own optimism will last, and for sure there will be plenty of downs as well as ups over the next 10 years. But as cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker argued in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now, the world is, overall, improving. Whether measured in terms of health, literacy, safety or prosperity, things are only getting better – and those advances are due, in no small part, to science.

Physicists often don’t get the credit, but their discoveries have transformed everyday life, not least in how we communicate. Powered by developments
in semiconductor physics and optics, I can see smartphones continuing to be ever lighter, faster and more powerful over the next decade (LiFi phones anyone?). Quantum computing and communication will become mainstream, with quantum computers routinely accessed via the cloud. Physics experiments will generate ever more data and analysing that information using artificial intelligence and machine learning will become “the new normal”.

I can see environmental concerns having a bigger influence on physics. Scientific lab equipment will become cleaner and greener. Particle-accelerator labs, which used to boast about how much electricity they consumed to perform collision experiments, will either have to be more coy or, better still, put energyefficient technologies centre stage. The rising impact of climate change will see air travel increasingly frowned upon, with jet-setting physicists having to fight harder to justify those conference flights. (And before you ask, yes we are looking at changing the plastic wrappers used to post print issues of Physics World.)

Medical physics will continue to boom, from improved radiotherapy treatments to new imaging techniques. In astronomy, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope should finally launch (though I wouldn’t bet against there being yet another delay beyond 2021). The ITER fusion experiment in France should create its “first plasma” by mid-decade – roughly at the same time as the high-luminosity upgrade to CERN’s LHC comes online. China’s underground gravitational-wave detector could be ready then too, joining a similar facility in Japan searching for these ripples in space–time, which should open this year.

Diversity matters

But perhaps the biggest change in physics over the next 10 years will be in terms of diversity and equality. Efforts under way in recent times to make physics open for all will finally pay off and, though I’m not convinced that the overall numbers studying physics will increase by much (or even at all), I do predict that those at the top of the field will, by 2030, be far more varied in background than now.

One thing is for sure: Physics World will be around to give you the liveliest and most thought-provoking coverage of the world of physics over the coming decade. So stay tuned for the ride ahead.

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