The Role of Physics in Progress

I would like to thank the organizers of the conference WHAT PHYSICS FOR THE YEAR 2000 for the opportunity to express my thoughts on the matter even as a non scientist, being merely an interested layman.


Progress should be defined as change toward a more complete understanding of the workings of nature and a consequently better survival of mankind through the application of this understanding as expressed in the use of various machinery and procedures, whether these be technical, biological, chemical or otherwise.

Physics, in the framework of progress, is concerned with the elaboration and testing of various hypotheses in its particular field. These hypotheses should lead to a gradual simplification of procedures. A deeper understanding of nature will inevitably lead to more basic knowledge and thereby to a simplification of procedures.

A good test for any new hypothesis would be the question: "Does this hypothesis lead to a more broad understanding of the phenomena in question", and another "Does this simplify our way of looking at the matter under consideration". If it doesn't, the hypothesis should be looked at with a wary eye.

Specialization is the archenemy of the discovery of more basic knowledge. We specialize too deeply in one field only and thereby exclude any broader look at phenomena from the very beginning. By specialization, we limit our field of vision, so to say.

The recent discovery of the phenomenon of cold fusion is an excellent illustration of this. The phenomenon, which is undoubtedly of an atomic nature, be it fusion or fission or another process not yet understood, was discovered almost by accident and not by a physicist, but by a team of chemists.

The continuing mistrust and even open adversity to the phenomenon of those engaged in "conventional" fusion research is another example of how a discovery that does not fit standard thinking and that requires new theories is treated as an outcast, quasi an unwanted child.

To understand the phenomenon, it will be necessary to integrate, not to separate, the fields of knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics, to gain a broad understanding of the principles underlying these fields.

We must be able and ready to look at and if necessary overthrow what we consider the basics of our understanding of the physical universe. If a theory cannot explain and predict certain phenomena that possess undeniable physical reality, that theory is not adequate and needs to be replaced by one that will give an understanding of a broader range of phenomena than the previous one. And if this involves re-thinking the basic axioms and postulates that have been held in revenence for generations, it must neverless be done, lest physics lose contact with the real world.

Therefore, progress in physics, and progress in general depends on our willingness to look at and re-think the basics in a way that specialization will never be able to achieve. Only a clear understanding of as broad a range of fields as possible on the part of the scientist will allow new and more basic understanding of this universe to be reached.

There are those who say progress is bad, technology is destructive to our environment and therefore, progress should be halted, the number of individual human beings on this planet should be limited and we should live in an idyllic but somewhat backward state of self-limitation.

I do not believe in this particular philosophy. Progress, I believe, is desirable, as long as it goes in the direction indicated above, of understanding the workings of nature and being thereby able to copy nature ever more perfectly and easily. Such progress will have no deteriorating influence on our environment such as present fossil-fuel and atomic-steam technologies have shown to possess.

Correct progress will bring us closer to nature and at the same time closer to the stars. There are ways to produce the energy necessary for our survival without disturbing the natural equilibrium. There are ways to feed many more people than are presently inhabiting this earth, and still have a functioning stable eco-system. These ways however pass through a more complete understanding of nature itself.

Physics can and must take a leading role in achieving this understanding.

Josef Hasslberger
Rome, Italy