art & culture
   Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
1991-97 Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

satellite dish

This last poster ends in 1997 on the eve of the millenium. Some speculation about the first decade of the 21st century (1998 and beyond) are included in the form of safe predictions, based on work already in progress. The final entries, are reminders of the larger, more fundamental questions that may remain unanswered for generations. Most of the men and women who will devote their lives to the solution of these problems are still in school now, and just beginning to discover the fascination of science.

A Century of Physics is intended to give them a glimpse of the rich history of the discipline, and to encourage them to be part of its next century. The high school seniors who are pictured here as representatives of the next generation were among the participants in two scientific competitions.

The Science Talent Search (STS), formerly sponsored by Westinghouse and now by Intel, has awarded scholarships to forty American high school students annually since 1942, while the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO), hosted by a different country each year since 1967, is a contest among teams of high school students from fifty nations. These young people, along with countless others throughout the world, will carry on the great traditions of physics.


A look back over a century of physics reveals an era of vigorous growth, not only in depth and scope, but also in sheer volume. The membership of the American Physical Society, for example, increased 400-fold from about a hundred in 1900 to over forty thousand in 1997. In part this growth reflects ballooning university enrollments, but it is also a symptom of the evolution of the scientific enterprise from a genteel academic pursuit into a robust component of the world's economy.

The story of the transistor illustrates the transformation. Life without computers is now as unthinkable as a computer without miniaturized transistors. Those, in turn, are products of a vast applied research effort at university and industrial laboratories that was rooted in pure, basic research. The lineage of today's laptop leads straight back to Werner Heisenberg's discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925.

Turning to the coming century, and trying to anticipate the future directions of science, it helps to remember that the great discoveries are rarely the outcomes of deliberate searches for universal answers, but more often the unanticipated dividends of careful research focused on modest, specific questions. Nearly four hundred years ago, for example, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler struggled for four years to remove a tiny discrepancy in the calculated orbit of Mars -- and discovered the laws that govern the motions of all the planets in the universe. In this century, Ernest Rutherford was investigating the details of the passage of charged particles through matter, when he hit upon the atomic nucleus. In the 21st century the passionate pursuit of particular problems will likewise yield wonderfully unexpected universal insights.

And what are the profound insights physicists could hope for? We may soon know what dark matter is, and whether the universe will continue to expand forever, but how did time begin? General Relativity teaches us what gravity is, but where does mass -- which measures inertia even in the absence of gravity -- come from? How should we describe turbulence, the chaotic swirl of liquids and gases that has defied mathematical physicists for a century? If we knew, would we be able to predict weather patterns and heart attacks? Can consciousness be explained in terms of electrical currents in neural networks, and possibly quantum mechanics, or is there more to it? For that matter, do we have to accept the strange laws of quantum mechanics without question, or will someone discover the clue that makes the quantum obvious, as Albert Einstein never stopped hoping? How did life begin? Are we alone in the universe? Until we can answer such questions with confidence, we cannot claim to have understood the world.

Looking back we realize that we have learned much in this century, but of mysteries there is no end. The most impenetrable of them all is to predict what the next discovery will be.

Geoffrey Park and Andrew Fry, US Team Members, IPhO

Michael Levin, US Team Member, IPhO

Geoffrey Park, US Team Member, IPhO

Charlene Ahn, US Team Member, IPhO

Noah Bray Ali US Team Member, IPhO
How did time begin?

Dean Jens US Team Member, IPhO

Christopher Hirota US Team Member, IPhO

Sang-Joon Park, US Team Member, IPhO
Can consciousness be explained in terms of electrical currents in neural networks?

John Newmann WSTS finalist, Illinois

Rachel Hutchins, WSTS finalist, Missouri

Carrie Sh. WSTS finalist, California

Can quantum mechanics be "explained"?

Joshua Gewolb, WSTS finalist, District of Columbia

Nicholas Eriksson, WSTS finalist, District of Columbia

Adam Cohen, WSTS finalist, New York

Elaine Wan, WSTS finalist, New York

Will the universe expand forever?

Elizabeth Chao, WSTS finalist, California

Michelle Tam, WSTS finalist, Illinois

Dev Kumar, WSTS finalist, Texas

Ana Marie Navarro, WSTS finalist, Minnesota

Where does mass come from?

Diameng Pa, WSTS finalist, Virginia

Alyssa Benjamin, WSTS finalist, New York

Davesh Maulik, WSTS finalist, New York

How should we describe turbulence?

Rose P. WSTS finalist, New York

Greg Tseng, WSTS finalist, Virginia

Stephen Oskoui, WSTS finalist, New York

How did life begin? What is dark matter?
Lisa Randall and John Andersland, 1980 WSTS winners
Congratulations to the high school students, Lisa Randall and John Andersland, pictured in 1980 as they celebrate their joint victory in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
In 1997 Lisa is a member of the physics department at the Massachusetss Institute of Technology, and John of the biology department at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
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