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Lets say you're an undergrad physics student with a lot of "sense" for technology and limited theoretical abilities. Now you need some kind of a career advice about the specific field of physics to specialize in. So you ask your senior colleagues: what is the current area of research that is promising most technological advances in the near future (~ 10-15 years)?

p.s. hope this question is valid, though predicting future isn't (yet) accurately answerable

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since the answers are deemed to be subjective, this question should be CWed –  Tobias Kienzler Feb 10 '11 at 9:42
You could go back to Newton's time and discover Lagrange/Hamilton mechanics and SR and GR and QM and QFT perhaps? That' ll get a lot of tech applications very early . . . –  Dimensio1n0 Jul 27 '13 at 3:13

7 Answers 7

Depends on what you mean by "sense" for technology. Condensed matter physics is the obvious answer, but that's partly because there are more condensed matter physicists than any other sort (particle physics gets all the press, but the condensed matter division of the APS is the largest). A great many of those people are employed in industry, so it's an area with good career prospects.

As for specific areas within condensed matter, it's a little difficult to say. Materials science is the most directly applied area, I think, so if you're talking about a student who's good at making things and conscientious about experimental design and so forth, that's probably the direction to go. Semiconductors and superconductors have bigger upside, though it's not clear that anybody is ever going to push high-Tc superconductors to a comercially useful regime, and that area probably requires a little more theoretical ability to understand what's going on.

Quantum information and quantum computing is extremely cool, and a lot of the experimental processes are relatively concrete and don't require much mathematical sophistication to understand. They're not really going to be pumping out commercial products any time soon, though, so they're likely to remain somewhat more academic in nature. Which may or may not be a negative feature, depending on what the student in question is really after.

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Broadly speaking and somewhat obviously - condensed matter physics. More specifically, and this is a very biased answer - quantum cryptography and given an extra 10-20 years - quantum computation.

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I definitely agree with quantum cryptography, but as far as 'real' quantum computation (instead of quantum simulation) goes, that seems a long shot (if at all feasible) and not something I'd advise to someone looking for an industry job within 10-15 years. –  Gerben Feb 11 '11 at 19:57

It's getting to the point where building nanoscale devices is commercially practical, so maybe nanophotonics, nanomaterials, nanofluid dynamics, nanoengineering, nanomechanics (?), etc. This area may be very important for practical quantum computing, but there are many much nearer applications. And some of these are being studied in engineering departments rather than physics departments, but you should be able to find related research topics in physics.

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I think Shor is in part right about nano-scaled technology. This was something Feynman wrote about in 1960! This is a fascinating talk he have


The future of technology probably follows three rules. The first rule I call the stone-tool rule. The second is historical continuity, and the third is what I call the anthro-entropy principle.

The stone-tool rule is that we are wrong in saying people gave up stone tools, in particular blades, in favor of bronze and later iron ones because metals were better. This is clearly wrong. If you have the time do some look at Folsom tips and other late Paleolithic stone tools. A well flaked blade has a concoidal fracture which sharpens to a single atom. It is almost a form of nano-tech. Well made stone blades in the hands of a skilled worker are far superior to metal blades. We shifted to metal blades because they can be made in greater numbers much more quickly, not because they are superior. We substituted metal parts with plastic, because plastic is cheaper and easier to form objects with, but is usually inferior in quality. Future technology will follow to some degree the same rule, we will have smaller cheaper devices in far greater numbers which do not last as long, become obsolete faster, but which can be accessed easily.

Thomas Hobbes commented on how an ounce of gold bought one a week’s lodging, food and other expenses. Though gold prices have been in a bit of a peak of late, the rule curiously holds true today on average. This is an example of historical continuity. Another example is with our forms of entertainment, which is a large sector of economic activity. The Roman constructed large coliseums for the purpose of gladiatorial games and “violencia.” Lots of engineering, hard work and investment capital went into this activity. We really do much the same, but in a much more sophisticated form. We have used our basic knowledge of physics to make plasma screens with video productions of very violent content. The average American watches in a lifetime about 50,000 killings in this vicarious or virtual setting. Historical continuity again, and any technology in the future with enhances the stimulus of the senses and heighten the endorphin levels of people through such violent content will doubtless be a winner. Other forms of spectacles hold as well, sports, rock concerts and their ancient comparison with chariot races and other circuses. The other constant is war-craft, which since the ancient world has consistently taken up 20-25% percent of economic activity. While it is nice to think the peacemakers will inherit the Earth, the safe bet is on the defense contractors. The next big form of activity is with food production, and agriculture based technologies will continue to move forwards. This of course has clear implications for bio-tech and genetic engineering. Finally the last is medical, where the just as the shaman of Pleistocene cultures held high position, so too do doctors and their ability to permit us to “beat the reaper,” at least for another day.

The final is the anthro-entropy principle. Our species has an amazing capacity to exploit its environment. It is what intelligence gives you the ability to do, and so far any environmental limit encountered can be circumvented. So we are a species of life which, unlike all others, has no permanent biological constraints upon it by other life forms. This permits our numbers to grow and for us to exert greater control and exploitation of the world. The net result is we use up stores of natural energy and materials and replace them with entropy and garbage. The trend is also exponential, where in more recent times we appear to be little more than a brainy ground ape on an exponential rampage. Any future technology which facilitates this progression will win the day as well. This includes energy efficiency technologies, where by increasing efficiency and reducing costs this ends up permitting far greater numbers of people to use the technology and ends up facilitating more consumption and ultimately more entropy production. Further, even though our population growth is starting to slow, it is being done by permitting vast numbers of people to consume far more. In 1960 the world population was 3 billion, but based on per capita use of energy and materials our current population would be over 20 billion, based on a 1960 consumption level. So we are replacing one form of growth with another. Look up Jevon’s paradox for examples of how this works.

The above little matter will not be solved by economics or politics. It will end in much the same way locust swarms come to an end: They eat everything up and die out. The one thing we will not be able to overcome is when we use up the natural world itself and have nothing left to work with.

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Optics and/or optical engineering has been good for me. It's interesting and there are plenty of jobs that are highly applied, but are still tied very closely to active areas of research.

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Go with biophysics. The next big revolution in industry is going to biology related; genomes and all that. There will be lots of high dollar applications in just about everything. Medicine, agriculture, silviculture, animal husbandry (or whatever fancy thing they call it nowadays), fishing, construction, biofuels, eventually even stuff like consumer goods.

It will be the "plastics" of the 2020s.

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Medical biophysics would be good. For example, at TRIUMF UBC, they are working on designing liquid xenon PET scanner. There are DNA chips etc. Combining the above answers, optical computing is also sounds interesting--see Lene Hau's work "freezing" light, or work on quantum donuts.

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