Fired-Up Physicists Can Solve the World’s Greatest Problems

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Fired-Up Physicists Can Solve the World’s Greatest Problems


Allison Helferty, with Annika Stare, Marta Celebic, and Lucy Corthell, SPS Reporters, Juniata College

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Allison Helferty. Photo courtesy of Helferty.

I felt panic. In just an hour, my team would have to dream up and prototype a device to solve one of the world's greatest problems. Our workshop moderator, Dr. Randy Tagg from the University of Colorado Denver, had just told us how students in his lab had been oscillating and stimulating gelatin in preparation for building a device to detect oral cancer. It seemed so inventive, using a squishy dessert to model the mouth! 

But how were we supposed to address something like cancer without PhDs on our side? How could my experience with coupled pendulums or solving the hydrogen atom's wave function be relevant to this exercise? Even with my hands-on lab experience, I couldn’t design a relevant experiment or piece of equipment—could I?

Thankfully, Dr. Tagg soothed my fears. His 2022 Physics Congress workshop, Physics for Humans: Entrepreneurship with Physics and Astronomy, addressed how a physics or astronomy education equips us to create life-changing methods and products. It’s about problem-solving. 

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In our model the drone (shown propped up on cups) flies above the forest (made of paper and block trees). The tensiometer hangs from the drone, collecting soil samples. In reality the drone would fly closer to the ground and intermittently collect soil samples. Photo courtesy of the Juniata College SPS reporters.

In homework and in the lab, physics and astronomy students build models, devices, and experiments; navigate failures; analyze results; and develop an intuition for what works and when. And once we solve enough problems with the work–kinetic energy theorem or Gauss' law or Schrödinger's equation, we can solve all of them—at least in certain cases. We also learn how to make educated guesses with approximations, mathematical models, and integration techniques. When designing solutions or products, our knowledge and experience give us somewhere to start. For example, we know that we can visualize electrical signals with oscilloscopes and convert times into frequencies with interferometers.

During the workshop we looked at a poster detailing physics subfields, common physics tools and methods, and product areas that help humans. There was so much overlap! Nuclear, thermal, and geophysics are all relevant to energy. Information and communication rely heavily on optics, wave mechanics, and acoustics. I began to realize that we do have the skills to solve huge problems, especially in a team. 

Ultimately, my team focused on wildfire detection. We considered the landscape changes during a fire―tree and air temperature, smell, air’s refractive index, and chemical changes in the burning wood. After much discussion, we landed on a detection system based on changes in the trees. A camera-carrying drone could give us the tree population, and a tensiometer could measure the water in the soil. We could extrapolate that to get the amount of water in the trees. 

Next we constructed a simple model of our drone-tensiometer system. At the end of the hour, we shared our problem and solution with other teams and fielded their questions. We also had the chance to see what they designed. Not bad for an hour’s worth of work! 

This experience helped us realize that the value of studying physics and astronomy isn’t solely the content we learn; it’s also the unique way of thinking. With our problem-solving skills, solid foundation in what can be detected and quantified, and insatiable curiosity for why things are the way they are, there is nothing we can’t do.


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