MANILA, MAY 29, 2009 (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Felixberto A. Buot, Ph.D. - (PART 2) Relevance to society

Physics, in particular quantum physics, is extremely important in our everyday lives. Everybody in the world is now dependent on handheld powerful communication gadgets. Physicists invented and played key roles in the development of navigational aids such as radar, global positioning satellite systems and instrument landing systems to keep us safe when we take commercial airline flights. Physicists are responsible for many of the non-invasive diagnostic techniques used in medicine, including X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electron microscope, scanning tunneling microscope, computer-assisted tomography (CAT scans), and positron emission tomography (PET scans). Fiber optics systems developed by physicists are used both in medical diagnostics and laser microsurgery. Indeed, two of the three scientists who discovered the structure of DNA were physicists. All of the advanced instrumentation in a biophysics and microbiological laboratory evolved from the instrumentation of physics research laboratories, including mass spectroscopy, laser, microwave, and optical spectroscopic techniques. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) are powerful non-invasive methodologies and offer strong potential for the investigation of biochemistry and physiology, and which ultimately benefit the field of medicine. Hence, there has been much work devoted to adapting the evolution of these methodologies into distinct and applicable techniques in the life sciences.

Inventions in the area of computers and communications, including the transistor, the radio and the Internet, were developed by physicists. In fact, aside from the economy based on “making money out of money,” a great deal of the world’s economy based on utilization of natural resources, agriculture, inventions, and manufacturing is said to depend on condensed matter physics (including superconductors), especially physics of semiconductors, metals, and insulators. Today’s powerful supercomputers, communication and advanced transportation systems owe their existence to the advancing field of various areas of physics, especially quantum electrodynamics, atomic and molecular physics, and particularly condensed matter physics.

Furthermore, fundamental principles in physics are needed for energy conservation and reduction of carbon footprint, and hence in the utilization of non-carbon based energy. These are needed in the prediction and early detection of natural disasters, namely global environmental changes and early warning for natural disaster. They provide tools for the unfolding revolution in biology and enhancing the national security and economic stability.

In summary, physics is a foundational science that enables advances in chemistry (e.g. density-functional theory, molecular orbital and resonating valence bond concepts, etc.), biology, medicine, earth and space science, anthropology, etc. Therefore, the development of an infrastructure of excellent physics education must not be underestimated in the course of any national science and technology development program of underdeveloped countries like the Philippines.

Intellectual challenges and opportunities

Intellectual challenges in physics have so far been unbounded and continue to amaze and energize those who have wild imagination and are intellectually brave enough to explore the unknowns in nature. These challenges border on the notion of creation, i.e., creating something out of nothing, and the study of nothingness itself, also referred as to vacuum or condensate in physics. A naive and very simplistic way to conceive a vacuum is to assume that everything in your surrounding looks the same, such as in the darkest night or the vast quiet and waveless ocean where the horizon and sky above look the same in all directions — then you have no point of reference and hence cannot distinguish anything, i.e., there is nothingness.

Indeed, the complex structures of the real vacuum in physics have been attributed to the origin of forces in nature and to the mass of particles. Since a vacuum or condensate is a single macroscopic quantum state, the entropy (which is a measure of the number of different configurations of the systems) is zero. So far, optimization or least action principle, symmetry, symmetry invariance, and symmetry breaking and the formulation of different order parameters, to characterize the different states of condensed matter and energy fields, have been the guiding principles in major advances of physics.

(To be continued)

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Dr. Felixberto A. Buot is a research physicist (retired) from the US Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C. He is currently a research professor at the Center for Computational Materials Science, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. He is a fellow of the Washington Academy of Sciences, and a senior member of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). He is the guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience on “Transport Physics of Low-Dimensional Systems, Mesoscopic Structures and Nanodevices: Theory, Modeling, and Simulation” (American Scientific Publishers, August 2009 issue). He authored a new book entitled “Nonequilibrium Quantum Transport Physics in Nanosystems” with subtitle “Foundation of Computational Nonequilibrium Physics in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology” (World Scientific Publishing Co., July 2009). E-mail him at

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