Workshop Highlight: Physics Driving Innovation

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Special Feature

PhysCon 2016

Workshop Highlight: Physics Driving Innovation


Jose Duran from Angelo State University, and Jose Barrios, Laurice Chao, and Julian Vimont from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, SPS Reporters

“What can those who write code for the universe make?” asked Dr. Randy Tagg, an associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado Denver who led the PhysCon workshop “Unifying Fields – Science Driving Innovation.”

Dr. Randy Tagg, Associate Professor of Physics, University of Colorado Denver, introduces the workshop. Photo courtesy of Matt Payne

If we look at physics as the code for the universe, then those of us who study physics have the tools to debug problems that affect all of humanity. The workshop built upon an idea that Freeman Dyson talked about at PhysCon 2012, “The biggest challenge for physics is building tools for people to use.”

After Dr. Tagg’s introduction, we heard from three of his students: Keegan Karbach and Alex Leith of Metropolitan State University of Denver, and Courtney Fleming of the University of Colorado Denver. They talked to us about not losing the motivation that drives us, and in turn, not losing hold of the good that we can achieve with physics. In order to build a better future, we need to work together to cultivate new ideas, no matter how unorthodox they might be, because they might revolutionize the world.

As part of the workshop, each table was asked to brainstorm a new product or innovation that fit into one of several categories, ranging from construction and manufacturing to renewable energy and education. Then, every person at the table had to pick a card from a deck of 52 cards that each had a different object or concept. This object or concept had to be part of our innovation. For example, actuators, data collection, and data storage and a category of space exploration could result in innovative Mars rovers that hold greenhouses and take data on the soil and mineral content of Mars.

Students develop innovative designs to solve technological challenges. Photo courtesy of Ken Cole

After fifteen minutes of brainstorming and deliberating ideas, we spent thirty minutes building a model out of construction paper and tape. Then there was time for people to move around the room and see what other tables had come up with. Tables had colorful models and schematics alongside equations to help explain what the attendees were trying to accomplish with their project.

Listening to Dr. Tagg talk and working alongside other physicists in this way was an exciting experience. Dr. Tagg’s passion for physics was contagious, and that made it easier for us to jump right into this project. Watching ideas cultivate and flourish with an alarming rate was fun, but the variety of ideas that came out of such simple concepts was the most surprising. People would take an inch and give you a mile, but the most important thing we took away from this workshop was the lesson that Dr. Tagg hoped to instill into us.

Students develop innovative designs to solve technological challenges. Photo courtesy of Ken Cole

His goal, he told us, was, “To enable physics majors to realize their potential as innovators who use physics to meet some real needs, and to go beyond their quest of fundamental physics and research and see how they can connect exactly that knowledge to serving the real world, and that they have the profound ability to do that.”

This seemed to be a common theme of PhysCon 2016, that when we apply the knowledge and skill we gain from studying physics in unconventional ways, we make the largest strides.

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