Innovations in science and technology: Computers

The world of computers has taken giant strides forward in the past 50 years, many of which are the direct result of research in physical areas like plasma physics, nanotechnology, quantum mechanics, superconductors and others. This research is ongoing, delivering even smaller devices that can perform billions of calculations in the palm of your hand.

By choosing a research career, this could be part of your legacy.


A brief history:

  • 1940′s – Researchers from Iowa State College develop the first electronic digital computer. ENIAC, the first large scale electronic computer, is built under a US Army contract. Bell Lab scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley invent the solid-state transistor (Nobel Prize, 1956).
  • 1945 – John von Neumann of the Institute for Advanced Study publishes the design for the modern computer, in which software replaces ENIAC’s hard-wired programs.
  • 1950′s – There are 10 computers in the US in 1951. UNIVAC, the first commercially available computer, is delivered to the Census Bureau. The first commercial magnetic hard-disk drive and the first microchip are introduced. Transistors are first used in radios.
  • 1960-70 – Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, maintains that “there is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home.” The first microprocessor, soft “floppy disks,” and personal computers are all introduced. Integrated circuits are used in watches.
  • 1980′s – The first Apple Macintosh and IBM PCs enter the marketplace. High-capacity hard drives get bundled with home computers. SEMATECH, a research consortium of US semiconductor companies and the government, is formed and helps to regain US leadership in the industry. The idea of quantum computers is first developed by Paul Benioff of Argonne National Laboratory and Richard Feynman of Caltech (Nobel Prize, 1965).
  • 1990′s – California builds more transistors in a year than the total number of raindrops that fall annually in that state. PDAs and digital cameras are among the new products that use computer chips. Very simple prototype quantum computers are built at MIT, Berkeley, NIST, IBM, Los Alamos and many other labs.
  • 2002 – The first commercial quantum-cryptography products appear.
  • 2006 – As conventional technologies reach their limits, new research areas such as molecular computing, spintronics, and quantum information science promise new ways to make computers even faster and more efficient.

Click to download the complete version of Physics Success Stories: Computers as a PDF.

Graduate programs for a career in computer innovation

If you are interested in doing cutting-edge research in computer technology, you might be surprised to learn that the relevant research areas go beyond computer science and engineering. You might explore graduate programs in the following fields:

  • Computer science - Some possible areas of focus: computation, programming, designing systems and machine processes, scientific modelling, and software development.
  • Condensed matter physics – Some possible areas of focus: semiconductors, optical properties of materials, innovations in CPU and chip design.
  • Applied physics and applied math Some possible areas of focus: new programs and methodologies for data analysis, scientific software development, and scientific modelling.
  • Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics - Some possible areas of focus: quantum mechanics and quantum computing.
  • Nanoscience and Technology - Some possible areas of focus: nanotechnology and nanoelectronics.
These are only a sample of the degrees that are related to computer science innovation. Find your degree in our customized graduate program search engine.
Are you interested in research? What program are you interested in? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!



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Advice to Students

Get a summer job, or summer classes, in the school you are going to study in. You don’t have to commit to anything long-term, but you can start in the summertime before your program starts. This way, you can also secure your accommodations and avoid competing with other students for housing during the fall. — Gary White, director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma, Podcast Episode #3

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