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The Power of "Useless" Knowledge

Do you know that without Einstein's theory of general relativity, we would not have Pokémon Go today? In his talk on Pokémon Go and Physics at the lnnoTech Expo 2016 held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, lAS Executive Director Che Ting Chan used the wildly popular mobile game to illustrate how curiosity-driven discoveries that were once viewed as useless or purely academic have become essential in our lives today.

Pokémon Go's augmented reality is made possible by GPS, which determines your relative location by comparing the time at your location to that at other locations. To make GPS work, we need to know very accurately how long a signal takes to travel from the satellite to your mobile phone. Yet according to the theory of general relativity, time is slowed down by gravity, meaning that the clocks of the satellites run more quickly than your watch on the earth's surface. Thanks to Einstein's theory of relativity, engineers who design GPS can make the necessary adjustments to correct the differences in clock speed at various locations This way, the clocks on earth and in the satellites are synchronized and Pokémon Go can successfully pinpoint your location to within one meter.

Similarly essential today is quantum physics, a bizarre science that to the uninitiated seemingly has little application. At a forum co-organized by lAS for the lnnoTech Expo, Prof Jian-Wei Pan from the University of Science and Technology of China and Prof Vic Law of Physics at HKUST discussed the application of photons-quanta of light-in communications. Due to the quantum nature of photons, any tinkering with them is detectable, making it impossible for eavesdropping to go unnoticed. With the right technology, quantum mechanics can communications for military, commercial purposes.

Prof Jian-Wei Pan (2nd from left) and Prof Vic Law (3rd from left) shared tile latest breakthroughs in quantum communications during the panel session.
Prof Che Ting Chan (top) used Pokémon Go (bottom) to show how physics plays a role in our everyday life.