How to Apply Physics to Social Issues

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Physics not only helps us to understand how the world works, but also can help develop new technologies that address social issues such as energy generation and water purification.

What is Physics?

Physics is a fundamental science that focuses on the nature of matter and energy. Physics helps us understand how EVERYTHING works, from the tiniest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies in our universe, but that's not all! Beyond just explaining how the natural world works, physics helps develop new technologies that can change the way we live and address some of the world's most pressing social issues.

Right now, two major world problems are how to provide cheap, clean energy and the proper management of water resources so that all people can access clean water. These two social issues, and indeed many others, affect everyone living on Earth today, and physics is helping to solve both! This field is known as applied physics and represents all efforts which help human beings solve their problems.

Physics helps us understand how rainbows appear and how galaxies form as well as develop nuclear technology or cars that can withstand collisions.
examples of physics

Physics and Energy Production

Imagine for a moment that you were born 300 years ago. There would be no electric lights, no cars, no big factories, and no computers. During the industrial revolution, when physicists and engineers developed new technology that used burning fossil fuels like coal and oil to create energy, the world changed dramatically in a very short time. Now, society is totally dependent on a steady supply of cheap energy.

The centuries-old problems are solved, but now society faces another energy problem. Most of our energy is from fossil fuels, but the demand for energy is rapidly outpacing the supply. In other words, we are running out. On top of that, burning these fuels releases chemicals that are bad for the environment, climate, and world health. Scientists can help solve the energy problem by using their expertise to develop new technologies producing clean energy and using renewable resources. Instead of fossil fuels, these technologies use atomic nuclei, the earth's heat, wind, water, the sun, and biomass to produce energy. Let's look more carefully one such technology!

Nuclear energy is stored inside the nucleus of atoms. Physicists first discovered how this energy was stored and then later developed a way to release it by splitting apart atomic nuclei, a process called nuclear fission. Even a very small amount of radioactive matter can release a huge amount of energy. No carbon dioxide or toxic fumes are released by nuclear power plants, so compared to fossil fuel-burning power plants, they pollute much less and produce more energy. Nuclear power plants were first built in the 1950's, and currently they supply about 10% of today's energy.

A nuclear power plant releases only water vapor, which means no air pollution or contribution to climate change.
Nuclear power plant

However, nuclear fission also produces radioactive waste, so nuclear power plants aren't a source of totally clean energy. To improve on nuclear energy production, physicists are now working on production methods of fusing the nuclei of two atoms together, called nuclear fusion. This is how energy is produced by the sun, and maybe one day we can do it here on Earth, too!

To produce energy by nuclear fusion, atomic nuclei are smashed together. The collision causes a large amount of energy to be released.
nuclear fusion

In addition to nuclear power, scientists are using physics to extract energy from the sun, earth, wind, and water. These technologies are improving every day. Maybe one day we will be able to produce enough energy for the whole world without having to burn fossil fuels and create more pollution!

Physics and Water Resources

Another major world issue is the increasing scarcity of clean water. In the developing world, about 80% of all illnesses are caused by drinking unclean water, and people often have to walk many miles carrying heavy jugs just to get drinking water. According to the World Health Organization, about 8000 people worldwide die every single day because of waterborne diseases. This is a tragedy, and one that physics can help overcome.

To meet the challenge of providing clean, safe water for all people, scientists and engineers are working hard to develop new technologies, such as a widely used device called the LifeStraw. It is a portable, personal water filter that removes over 99.99% of disease causing bacteria and other microorganisms. It uses no dangerous chemicals, either. Water simply passes through a series of very small holes that trap any microorganisms that might be present.

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