Science in the 21st Century

The Physics of Life?



Scientific theories can affect the way we think and live, but not necessarily both. On the philosophical scale they can influence the very core of how we view ourselves and world around us; on the practical side and often stimulate technology that transforms our daily lives.


In the 19th century biology gave us evolution and physics gave classical thermodynamics and electromagnetic theory. The former precipitated huge philosophical and religious fallout that rumbles on to the present day in the form of the Intelligent Design debate, but really had little effect on the practicalities of day-to-day life. On the other hand the thermodynamic and electromagnetic theories caused only minor ripples on the sea of philosophy but completely changed the way people lived. They put lights in our homes, enabled long distance communication on the telegraph and later the radio, and enabled mass travel in the railway and ship and laid foundations for the car and the aeroplane.


In the 20th century biology fought back with the life-changing antibiotic and stunning progress with surgical techniques and genetics, whilst physics gave birth to the philosophically disturbing twins of relativity and quantum mechanics, resulting in the mixed blessings of the A-bomb and the transistor.


Surveying the scene at the outset of the 21st century we find that the physicists’ search for a grand unified theory (GUT) has been in the doldrums for 50 years whilst biologists have made startling progress towards their holy grail of understanding life itself - by unravelling the human genome. For these reasons the pundits tell us the 21st century will be the ‘Century of Biology’. Fans of biology speak of radical progress as medicine harnesses the new super-weapons of genetics such as embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in a revitalised war on disease whilst opening a second front by launching an offensive against paralysis, deformity, serious injury and perhaps even death itself.  What can physicists possibly offer to compete with this?


David Tossell, author of the futuristic robotic satire Thinkbot, argues that robotics will be the physics-based technology that will transform our lives in the 21st century. Much like the PC over the past 20 years, over the next few decades robots will march into our workplaces, our schools, our hospitals, our transport systems, our armies and finally our homes. They’ll deliver our groceries and drive us around; they’ll do the plumbing and fit the double-glazing; they’ll put out fires and catch criminals; they’ll look after the sick and keep the lonely company; they’ll even fight our wars for us. On the downside, grown men who should know better will stand around in pubs boasting about the specifications of the robots they own.


And finally, don’t assume the biologist automatically has the monopoly on unravelling life’s secrets. It may be a robotic physicist that nails that one when a robot unexpectedly turns around and starts asking the questions. At this point the long held monopoly of ‘life-science’ by biology will suddenly look shaky.


A perhaps more realistic scenario is that it will be a collaboration between physicists and biologists (and perhaps a number of other disciplines) that will create the first ‘artificial’ life form.


The precursor technologies for robots are subject to intense activity today:

  1. Artificial intelligence/ advanced control algorithms.
  2. Electric actuators/ synthetic muscles
  3. Miniature sensors
  4. Lightweight compact power packs (batteries; hydrogen cells; chemical (robots may even eat food like us))


It’s only a matter of time until robots escape the laboratory.


You have been warned!


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