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The year ahead in physics 2023

6 February 2023

A run through some of the key dates on the calendar.


Last year saw a wealth of groundbreaking developments in the world of physics, in science and for frontiers beyond earth. The stunning images from Nasa’s JWST (space telescope) gave us an insight into the origins of the universe, while the space race sped up as efforts accelerated to take civilians where none have gone before.

A trio won the Nobel Prize in Physics for progressing quantum science. The 2023 Breakthrough Prize (announced last September) went to Charles H Bennett, Gilles Brassard, David Deutsch and Peter Shor, also for their work in quantum.

At Cork and Oxford universities, a research team made huge advances in our understanding of the make-up of superconductors. They are electricity-conducting materials with temperature limitations, but the scientists behind these experiments hope their work will revolutionise how superconductors could be used at higher temperatures more widely, for super-efficient energy storage and maglev trains, among other things.

2023 promises to be no different across the spectrum. In the US, the Linac Coherent Light Source-II is set to become what is essentially the most powerful X-ray machine ever, with capability to give mind-boggling detail of inside atoms and ultimately able to foster advances in energy and technology. And there have already been further images from Nasa’s space telescope showing freezing ‘interstellar ice’ clouds containing molecules suitable for harbouring life.

Here are some more dates for the diary with implications for our field:

Nuclear fusion

Towards the end of last year researchers in California reportedly demonstrated a first-ever positive energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction. If progressed, their findings could have world-changing implications for limitless, carbon-free energy. Will there will be any further movement on this in 2023?

The environment

Some gains to help the environment were made at Cop27 in Egypt, but with the climate crisis intensifying, efforts will be ramped up for the next iteration of the conference in Dubai (30 November-12 December).

The plans might be at an early stage, but ideas are proliferating around space-based solar power, which would make use of satellites kitted out with solar panels that beam the sun’s energy down to earth from orbit. It’s an area being explored further after the European Space Agency approved the three-year Solaris feasibility programme, while the UK government is shortly expected to reveal the winners of its Space Based Solar Power Innovation Competition, with £3m funding to aid technology development.

Later this year, the IOP will be exploring the huge potential of physics to drive forward our green economy and what action governments and the business sector can take to unlock this potential.

Awareness days

February sees the return of National Apprenticeships Week (6-12 February) and International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February). International Women’s Day is 8 March and the same month is LGBT History Month. International Day of Light, which celebrates the importance of light to science, is on 16 May. And later in the year it’s the return of International Women in Engineering Day (23 June).

The moon and beyond

India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission will aim to touch down on and collect important data from the moon, while the dearMoon project promises to take space tourists (and not just professional astronauts) there by the end of the year – a first. On these shores, there are hopes for the progression of the UK space industry, with Orbex aiming to blast its Prime rockets equipped with mini-satellites into orbit from Sutherland, Scotland – another first.

Nobel and Breakthrough prizes

As ever, the leading physicist or physicists operating today will be recognised when the Nobel prizes are announced in the first half of October. In recent times the accolade has gone to climate change pioneers and scientists who research black hole formation. The 2024 Breakthrough prizes, currently accepting applications, will be unveiled in early autumn.

Big science

Cancer treatments could be given a much-needed boost with the Welsh government’s proposed Advanced Radioisotope Technology for Health Utility Reactor (Arthur). The nuclear lab, based in north Wales, may be able to produce enough medical radioisotopes for the whole of the UK amid a possible supply crisis.

Work carries on apace on the Square Kilometre Array – what will eventually become the world’s largest radio telescope – split across Australia and South Africa and with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire.

Quantum

With the government set to give more detail on its quantum strategy, one example shows the trend: start-up Universal Quantum will be building an extremely powerful trapped-ion quantum computer after winning a £58m contract with the German Aerospace Centre. The IOP has outlined its own Vision for Quantum Technologies in the UK, with 10 recommendations.

Iop.org is the place to keep up to date. And as usual, there will be breakthroughs and world events impacting on physics that we have not yet predicted. Watch this space.