Why Theoretical Physics

Theoretical physics is a cornerstone of modern quantitative science, on which so much else rests. It is perhaps the highest-impact, lowest-cost area of basic research. The field advances our fundamental understanding of the universe, and seeds the technologies of tomorrow. Solar cells, computers, wireless technologies, diagnostic imaging – they are all rooted in breakthroughs made by theoretical physicists.

Time and again, breakthroughs in our fundamental understanding of how the universe works have led to  transformative technologies, with innumerable benefits to society. The reason is simple:  since any technology relies on the laws of nature, the better we understand those laws, the more powerful the technologies we can create.

For example, electricity and magnetism were once thought to be unrelated forces. Building largely on the experimental work of Michael Faraday, theorist James Clerk Maxwell discovered electromagnetism – a single, deeper theory that unified these two forces. Faraday and Maxwell’s work eventually led to the development of electric motors, generators, and a safe electric power distribution system ("the grid"), the cleanest and most versatile form of energy the world has ever seen.

As a further example, when Guglielmo Marconi applied Maxwell’s electromagnetism to send the first wireless message between continents, the Communications Age was born, changing our lives with radio, television, smartphones and wireless internet. By pondering the nature of space and time, Albert Einstein unexpectedly discovered that matter is a concentrated form of energy, which soon led to an understanding of how stars like our Sun work, by a process called fusion.

These ideas are currently being applied or contemplated in some of the largest-scale science and engineering projects in human history to harness the power of fusion. Over the 21st century, these projects may play a role in helping to solve the world’s energy problems, and as a by-product, reducing human impact on the environment and global warming. Even further, Einstein’s deeper understanding of the nature of gravity provided the know-how required to build the Global Positioning System (GPS), a profoundly useful technology across a wide spectrum of human endeavours.

To unravel the mysteries of the atom, theoretical physicists developed quantum theory, which has had innumerable spinoff technologies ranging from the transistor (at the heart of computers and virtually every electronic device on the planet), the laser (used everywhere from home DVD players to fibre optic communication networks spanning the globe), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and other life-saving medical technologies, and many more.

This is how fundamental physics drives innovation. Theoretical physics is always at the root of it. Perhaps no other field of science can have as deep and as broad of an impact on society and how we understand the universe. Beyond the technologies that may emerge from physics is the intellectual journey of discovery.

Scientific research is a global effort, and the pursuit of new knowledge – from theory to experiment – provides a framework in which past lessons and new ideas are transferred throughout a great research chain. This includes the deep understanding that is passed along to new generations of critical thinkers who emerge throughout academia, industry, and all parts of society.

These young innovators will go on to apply their own analytical and technical skills – within or outside of the physics research community – and propel human knowledge even further for the understanding and benefit of all.