It’s the end of both the year and the decade (in the Gregorian calendar, anyway), which makes it a good time to take stock of the past, both for the year 2019, and on a decadal timescale (bearing in mind that when I talk about “physics of the decade” I’m thinking in terms of notional decades, which don’t necessarily correspond to full ten-year spans on the calendar). But it’s also a time for looking forward to the future, to try to predict what will happen in years to come. Ethan “Starts With a Bang” Siegel has a post predicting the future trajectory of physics based on important discoveries from the last ten years, and I can hardly let that be the only such piece on Forbes dot com…
A couple of notes up front before I start suggesting possibilities for “The Physics of the 2020s”: first, as stated above, I’m not necessarily talking about a strictly calendrical decade, here— I’m talking about what people in 2100 will think of as the physics that defined a particular era, which can spill over a few years to either side, in the same way that “The 1960s” in US pop culture really means something more like 1964-1972 (The Beatles to Nixon’s re-election). In the same vein, I’m not necessarily talking about what most physicists will be working on (the answer is “condensed matter physics”), but what will be the headline stuff that people will will look back on as essential for the state of the future, which means it might be something that explodes out of a relatively niche subfield. It does not mean that the topics I suggest will be the only interesting work being done— not by a long shot. I’m trying to predict a particular snapshot sort of answer, not a comprehensive overview of everything.
Finally, it’s essential to note up front that this is necessarily a matter of opinion, shaped by my particular preoccupations in physics. This is especially important to note because there will be zero overlap between my list of suggestions below and Ethan’s post about what will come from what he deems “the most important discoveries of the 2010s.” He’s a particle astrophysics guy, so his list skews strongly in that direction; I’m very much not, so I’ll go in a very different direction.
With those important preliminaries out of the way, what are the candidates for “The Physics of the 2020s”?
The 2020s Will Be The Decade Of Quantum
Some of the strongest negative reactions I got to my post about the physics of the 2010s were arguments that I should’ve given the honors to quantum computing/ quantum information. I didn’t do that not because I don’t think the last several years of work in quantum computing haven’t been important and exciting— quite the contrary (and note that I made the “quantum supremacy” result the co-discovery-of-the-year for 2019). I didn’t call the 2010s “The Decade of Quantum Information” because it feels more like we’re at the start of something than in the middle of it.
While there’s been a ton of cool stuff done in developing quantum computing tools and techniques, for most of the decade these very much had a toy system feel to them. In just the last couple of years, though, it feels like we’re moving into a new regime, where legitimately, verifiably quantum systems are starting to be able to tackle problems for which quantum computing is genuinely essential.
Admittedly, the problem used to demonstrate “quantum supremacy” by Google is not, in fact, an interesting one— it’s very much a toy problem in that it’s showing that a quantum computer can be used to very quickly find a result that absolutely nobody would care about otherwise. It’s not an enormous leap away from some more interesting problems in the “simulation of quantum systems” space, though, and given all the effort and money currently being directed toward this subfield, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect more, and more interesting, results in the next several years. Thus, I think there’s a pretty good chance that physicists in the distant future will look back on the 2020s and say “Oh, yeah, that’s when quantum computing really took off…”
The 2020s Will Be The Decade Of Superconductors
Another possibility, though one that’s a bit of a longer shot, is that the 2020s will see a breakthrough in our understanding of high-temperature superconductivity. This is a field that I tagged as the discovery of the 1980s, so this would be the completion of a long-running project.
Again, this feels like a field that’s set up for something cool to happen, what with all the recent work on exotic materials like twisted bilayer graphene and materials that become superconducting at high pressures, and to a lesser extent ultracold-atom analogues. These systems offer experimental test beds with a degree of flexibility in terms of the parameters of interest that could finally provide clean and compelling data to sort out what’s going on in the high-Tc systems that have been puzzling condensed matter physicists since 1986.
This is a long shot for two reasons: first and foremost, because it’s not by any means a sure thing that these new systems will lead to any kind of breakthrough. But along with that, it’s not guaranteed that a breakthrough will be really impactful— if it just settles a relatively abstract theoretical question, it will be remembered as the closing of a golden age for condensed matter physics, and not much thought of outside the field.
If, on the other hand, an understanding of the mechanism leads to the ability to engineer new materials that become superconducting at even higher temperatures, well, that would revolutionize all sorts of technologies. Thus, it belongs on the list, because while it’s a long shot, if it pays off it would absolutely dwarf everything else in significance for future society.
The 2020s Will Be The Decade Of “Green Energy”
Speaking on long shots, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about this last possibility: I will readily admit that including it represents a bit of wishful thinking on my part. I am not entirely confident that the prerequisites for a breakthrough are really in place in the same way that they are of the others, or that a green energy revolution would be attributable to physics discoveries rather than simple engineering build-out of technologies based on principles that are already understood.
That said, I think climate change is a sufficiently pressing issue that any significant contribution to solving the problem would be monumentally important. And in the same way that the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project define their eras without completely redefining fundamental science, I hold out some hope for a significant cash infusion along the lines proposed by Kevin Drum.
Even if we don’t see enormous improvements in the fundamental science, a big push for green energy technology would necessarily involve physics in a major way, and if such an effort succeeds, it will be forever remembered as one of the key steps on the path to a better world.
So, there are my three suggestions for things that I think might come to be remembered as defining the 2020s in physics. These are, of course, potentially inter-related— that is, a quantum computing breakthrough might prove critical for understanding and engineering superconductivity, and practical high-temperature superconductors would be one of the ultimate examples of a green energy technology. I think these are reasonably distinct, though, in that while you could imagine them contributing to each other, you could also get any one of them without the other two.
Again, this does not mean that I think all the many subfields of physics that I didn’t mention are dead ends that will fail to produce anything memorable— there will be all manner of interesting and exciting work done by physicists in all sorts of areas in the next ten-ish years. These are just three areas that I think have the potential to really explode in a way that will make them remembered decades hence as defining the coming era of physics.
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