According to Cherry Murray of Bell Labs, the next high-tech revolution will be in telecoms. Speaking at the annual meeting of the European Physical Society’s Condensed Matter Division, Murray said that light is the future. Despite the current downturn in the optoelectronics and telecoms industry, she remains optimistic about its future. The drive to be smaller, faster, lower power, and cheaper makes optics a very attractive future option. “The all optical network is being born,” she says, but new devices are needed. Will Stewart, chief scientist at the troubled Marconi, echoed this viewpoint at the recent Materials Congress in London. Optical devices will certainly be faster, he says, but smaller they are not. At least, not yet… He likens the current situation in integrated optics to electronics in the 1960s — with the attendant explosive expansion on the horizon.

Sustainability emerged as another important future trend at the Materials Congress. With growing demands and diminishing or problematic use of resources, the need for taking sustainability issues into consideration is becoming more and more pressing. According to Sara Parkin of the UK Forum for the Future, sustainability also presents “an opportunity to refresh engineering.” She believes that the issue is one that appeals to younger engineers and could be a draw to bring a new generation to the profession. If it does, this will be a vital boost to a field that, in the UK at least, is suffering a ‘crisis in recruitment’. Sir Peter Williams also asked this question in his address to the Institute of Physics (IOP) annual congress, “School pupils shop around, they choose — and in increasing numbers they are choosing something other than science and engineering. Why?” One of the problems, he says, is the separation of science and engineering into different divisions. “Industry doesn’t care about the artificial divisions erected between different disciplines. They want bright people, well trained in one of any number of relevant disciplines. I’m sure that in schools… there is no hard and fast perception about science and engineering — it’s all science in the classroom.”

It seems a great pity that such concerns about attracting new students and new professionals to the applied physical scientists should come at such a potentially exciting time for the field. A week after the Materials Congress and the IOP Congress, the BMW CleanEnergy World Tour came to London (see Policy News, p. 20). BMW’s vocal promotion of a revolution in fuel technology — and a move to an environmentally-friendly hydrogen economy — opens up many exciting avenues for further exploration (see Cahn’s Column, p. 13). The changing face of transportation — not to mention energy generation in general — will require new scientific advances in everything from hydrogen fuel storage materials for fuel tanks to recycled materials for interior fittings. And what it will also require is scientists and engineers to work on these problems.

Perhaps the vista of these potential revolutions on the horizon makes the future seem uncertain — and it is this that is putting off students from pursuing careers in the physical sciences and engineering. However, the very visible revolution in life sciences did wonders for student and professional recruitment. Let’s hope that the changes that are certainly on the way in the physical sciences will have a similar effect.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)00601-6