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Physics (from the Greek, φυσικός (phusikos), "natural", and φύσις (phusis), "nature") is the science of nature in the broadest sense. Physicists study the behavior and properties of matter in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from the sub-nuclear particles from which all ordinary matter is made (particle physics) to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole (cosmology).

Some of the properties studied in physics are common to all material systems, such as the conservation of energy. Such properties are often referred to as laws of physics. Physics is sometimes said to be the "fundamental science", because each of the other natural sciences (biology, chemistry, geology, etc.) deals with particular types of material systems that obey the laws of physics. For example, chemistry is the science of molecules and the chemicals that they form in the bulk. The properties of a chemical are determined by the properties of the underlying molecules, which are accurately described by areas of physics such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.

Physics is also closely related to mathematics. Physical theories are almost invariably expressed using mathematical relations, and the mathematics involved is generally more complicated than in the other sciences. The difference between physics and mathematics is that physics is ultimately concerned with descriptions of the material world, whereas mathematics is concerned with abstract patterns that need not have any bearing on it. However, the distinction is not always clear-cut. There is a large area of research intermediate between physics and mathematics, known as mathematical physics, devoted to developing the mathematical structure of physical theories.


Overview of physics research

Theoretical and experimental physics

The culture of physics research differs from the other sciences in the separation of theory and experiment. Since the 20th century, most individual physicists have specialized in either theoretical physics or experimental physics, and in the twentieth century, very few physicists have been successful in both forms of research 1. In contrast, almost all the successful theorists in biology and chemistry have also been experimentalists.

Roughly speaking, theorists seek to develop theories that can explain existing experimental results and successfully predict future results, while experimentalists devise and perform experiments to explore new phenomena and test theoretical predictions. Although theory and experiment are developed separately, they are strongly dependent on each other. Progress in physics frequently comes about when experimentalists make a discovery that existing theories cannot account for, necessitating the formulation of new theories. In the absence of experiment, theoretical research can go in the wrong direction; this is one of the criticisms that have been levelled against M-theory, a popular theory in high-energy physics for which no practical experimental test has ever been devised.

Central theories

While physics deals with a wide variety of systems, there are certain theories that are used by all physicists. Each of these theories is believed to be basically correct, within a certain domain of validity. For instance, the theory of classical mechanics accurately describes the motion of objects, provided they are much larger than atoms and moving at much less than the speed of light. These theories continue to be areas of active research; for instance, a remarkable aspect of classical mechanics known as chaos was investigated in the 20th century, three centuries after its formulation by Isaac Newton. However, few physicists expect any of them to prove fundamentally misguided. They are important tools for research into more specialized topics, and any student of physics, regardless of his or her specialization, is expected to be well-versed in them.

Theory Major subtopics Concepts
Classical mechanics Newton's laws of motion, Lagrangian mechanics, Hamiltonian mechanics, Chaos theory, Fluid dynamics, Continuum mechanics Dimension, Space, Time, Motion, Length, Velocity, Mass, Momentum, Force, Energy, Angular momentum, Torque, Conservation law, Harmonic oscillator, Wave, Work, Power,
Electromagnetism Electrostatics, Electricity, Magnetism, Maxwell's equations Electric charge, Current, Electric field, Magnetic field, Electromagnetic field, Electromagnetic radiation, Magnetic monopole
Thermodynamics and Statistical mechanics Heat engine, Kinetic theory Boltzmann's constant, Entropy, Free energy, Heat, Partition function, Temperature
Quantum mechanics Path integral formulation, Schrödinger equation, Quantum field theory Hamiltonian, Identical particles, Planck's constant, Quantum entanglement, Quantum harmonic oscillator, Wavefunction, Zero-point energy
Theory of relativity Special relativity, General relativity Equivalence principle, Four-momentum, Reference frame, Spacetime, Speed of light

Major fields of physics

Contemporary research in physics is divided into several distinct fields that study different aspects of the material world. Condensed matter physics, by most estimates the largest single field of physics, is concerned with how the properties of bulk matter, such as the ordinary solids and liquids we encounter in everyday life, arise from the properties and mutual interactions of the constituent atoms. The field of atomic, molecular, and optical physics deals with the behavior of individual atoms and molecules, and in particular the ways in which they absorb and emit light. The field of particle physics, also known as "high-energy physics", is concerned with the properties of submicroscopic particles much smaller than atoms, including the elementary particles from which all other units of matter are constructed. Finally, the field of astrophysics applies the laws of physics to explain astronomical phenomena, ranging from the Sun and the other objects in the solar system to the universe as a whole.

Field Subfields Major theories Concepts
Astrophysics Cosmology, Planetary science, Plasma physics Big Bang, Cosmic inflation, General relativity, Law of universal gravitation Black hole, Cosmic background radiation, Galaxy, Gravity, Gravitational radiation, Planet, Solar system, Star
Atomic, molecular, and optical physics Atomic physics, Molecular physics, Optics, Photonics Quantum optics Diffraction, Electromagnetic radiation, Laser, Polarization, Spectral line
Particle physics Accelerator physics, Nuclear physics Standard Model, Grand unification theory, M-theory Fundamental force (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak, strong), Elementary particle, Antimatter, Spin, Spontaneous symmetry breaking, Theory of everything Vacuum energy
Condensed matter physics Solid state physics, Materials physics, Polymer physics BCS theory, Bloch wave, Fermi gas, Fermi liquid, Many-body theory Phases (gas, liquid, solid, Bose-Einstein condensate, superconductor, superfluid), Electrical conduction, Magnetism, Self-organization, Spin, Spontaneous symmetry breaking

Related fields

There are many areas of research that mix physics with other disciplines. For example, the wide-ranging field of biophysics is devoted to the role that physical principles play in biological systems, and the field of quantum chemistry studies how the theory of quantum mechanics gives rise to the chemical behavior of atoms and molecules. Some of these are listed below.

Acoustics - Astronomy - Biophysics - Computational physics - Electronics - Engineering - Geophysics - Materials science - Mathematical physics - Medical physics - Physical chemistry - Physics of computation - Vehicle dynamics

Fringe theories

Cold fusion - Dynamic theory of gravity - Luminiferous aether - Orgone energy - Steady state theory - Time Cube


Main article: History of physics. See also Famous physicists and Nobel Prize in Physics.

Since antiquity, people have tried to understand the behavior of matter: why unsupported objects drop to the ground, why different materials have different properties, and so forth. Also a mystery was the character of the universe, such as the form of the Earth and the behavior of celestial objects such as the Sun and the Moon. Several theories were proposed, most of which were wrong. These theories were largely couched in philosophical terms, and never verified by systematic experimental testing as is popular today. There were exceptions and there are anachronisms: for example, the Greek thinker Archimedes derived many correct quantitative descriptions of mechanics and hydrostatics.

The works of Ptolemy (Astronomy) and Aristotle (Physics) were also found to not always match everyday observations. An example of this is an arrow flying through the air after leaving a bow contradicts with Aristotle's assertion that the natural state of all objects is at rest.

The willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers resulted in a period of major scientific advancements, now known as the Scientific Revolution. Its origins can be found in the European re-discovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This period culminated with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by Isaac Newton (dates disputed).

The Scientific Revolution is held by most historians (e.g., Howard Margolis) to have begun in 1543, when there was brought to the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus the first printed copy of the book De Revolutionibus he had written about a dozen years earlier. The thesis of this book is that the Earth moves around the Sun. Other significant scientific advances were made during this time by Galileo Galilei, Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Kepler, and Blaise Pascal.

During the early 17th century, Galileo pioneered the use of experimentation to validate physical theories, which is the key idea in the scientific method. Galileo formulated and successfully tested several results in dynamics, in particular the Law of Inertia. In 1687, Newton published the Principia Mathematica, detailing two comprehensive and successful physical theories: Newton's laws of motion, from which arise classical mechanics; and Newton's Law of Gravitation, which describes the fundamental force of gravity. Both theories agreed well with experiment. The Principia also included several theories in fluid dynamics. Classical mechanics was exhaustively extended by Lagrange, Hamilton, and others, who produced new formulations, principles, and results. The Law of Gravitation initiated the field of astrophysics, which describes astronomical phenomena using physical theories.

After Newton defined classical mechanics, the next great field of inquiry within physics was the nature of electricity. Observations in the 17th and 18th century by scientists such as Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, and Benjamin Franklin created a foundation for later work. These observations also established our basic understanding of electrical charge and current.

In 1821, Michael Faraday integrated the study of magnetism with the study of electricity. This was done by demonstrating that a moving magnet induced an electric current in a conductor. Faraday also formulated a physical conception of (what are now called) electromagnetic fields. James Clerk Maxwell built upon this conception, in 1864, with an interlinked set of 20 equations that explained the interactions between electric and magnetic field. These 20 equations were later reduced, using vector calculus, to a set of four equations.

In addition to other electromagnetic phenomena, Maxwell's equations also can be used to describe light. Confirmation of this observation was made with the 1888 discovery of radio by Heinrich Hertz and in 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen detected X rays. The ability to describe light in electromagnetic terms helped serve as a springboard for Albert Einstein's publication of his theory of special relativity. This theory combined classical mechanics with Maxwell's equations. The theory of special relativity unifies space and time into a single entity, spacetime. Relativity prescribes a different transformation between reference frames than classical mechanics; this necessitated the development of relativistic mechanics as a replacement for classical mechanics. In the regime of low (relative) velocities, the two theories agree. Einstein built further on the special theory by including gravity into his calculations, and published his theory of general relativity in 1915.

One part of the theory of general relativity is Einstein's field equation. This describes how the mass-energy tensor creates a curvature in spacetime, and when combined with the geodesic equation forms the basis of general relativity. Further work on Einstein's field equation produced results which predicted the Big Bang,3 black holes, and the expanding universe. Einstein believed in a static universe and attempted to fix his equation to allow for this, but by 1927, the expanding universe was sought for by astronomers, and in 1929 evidence was found by Edwin Hubble.

From the 18th century onwards, thermodynamics was developed by Boyle, Young, and many others. In 1733, Bernoulli used statistical arguments with classical mechanics to derive thermodynamic results, initiating the field of statistical mechanics. In 1798, Thompson demonstrated the conversion of mechanical work into heat, and in 1847 Joule stated the law of conservation of energy, in the form of heat as well as mechanical energy.

In 1895, Roentgen discovered X-rays, which turned out to be high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and further studied by Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and others. This initiated the field of nuclear physics.

In 1897, Thomson discovered the electron, the elementary particle which carries electrical current in circuits. In 1904, he proposed the first model of the atom, known as the plum pudding model. (The existence of the atom had been proposed in 1808 by Dalton.)

Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity in 1896. The next year Joseph J. Thomson discovered the electron. These discoveries revealed that the assumption of many physicists that atoms were the basic unit of matter was flawed, and prompted further study into the structure of atoms.

In 1900, Max Planck published his explanation of blackbody radiation. This equation assumed that radiators are quantized in nature, which proved to be the opening argument in the edifice that would become quantum mechanics.

During the 1920s Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born were able to formulate a consistent picture of the chemical behavior of matter, a complete theory of the electronic structure of the atom, as a byproduct of the quantum theory. Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Richard Feynman were able to explain the Lamb shift using a quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics by the 1940s. In 1959, Feynman presented the hypothesis that it is possible to manipulate matter at the level of atoms, starting the field of nanotechnology.

In 1911, Rutherford deduced from scattering experiments the existence of a compact atomic nucleus, with positively charged constituents dubbed protons. Neutrons, the neutral nuclear constituents, were discovered in 1932 by Chadwick.

The equivalence of mass and energy (Einstein, 1905) was spectacularly demonstrated during World War II, as research was conducted by each side into nuclear physics, for the purpose of creating a nuclear bomb. The German effort, led by Heisenberg, did not succeed, but the Allied Manhattan Project reached its goal. In America, a team led by Fermi achieved the first man-made nuclear chain reaction in 1942, and in 1945 the world's first nuclear explosive was detonated at Trinity site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Beginning in 1900, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, and others developed quantum theories to explain various anomalous experimental results by introducing discrete energy levels. In 1925, Heisenberg and 1926, Schrödinger and Dirac formulated quantum mechanics, which explained the preceding quantum theories. In quantum mechanics, the outcomes of physical measurements are inherently probabilistic; the theory describes the calculation of these probabilities. It successfully describes the behavior of matter at small distance scales.

Quantum mechanics also provided the theoretical tools for condensed matter physics, which studies the physical behavior of solids and liquids, including phenomena such as crystal structures, semiconductivity, and superconductivity. The pioneers of condensed matter physics include Bloch, who created a quantum mechanical description of the behavior of electrons in crystal structures in 1928.

Quantum field theory was formulated in order to extend quantum mechanics to be consistent with special relativity. It achieved its modern form in the late 1940s with work by Feynman, Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Dyson. They formulated the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes the electromagnetic interaction. Quantum field theory provided the framework for modern particle physics, which studies fundamental forces and elementary particles. C. N. Yang and T. D. Lee, in the 1950s, discovered an unexpected asymmetry in the decay of a subatomic particle4. In 1954, Yang and Mills developed a class of gauge theories5,6 which provided the framework for the Standard Model. The Standard Model, which was completed in the 1970s, successfully describes almost all elementary particles observed to date.

The two themes of the 20th century, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are not currently consistent with each other. General relativity describes the universe on the scale of planets and solar systems while quantum mechanics operates on sub-atomic scales. This challenge is being attacked by string theory, which treats spacetime as a manifold, not of points, but of one-dimensional objects, strings. Strings have properties like a common string (e.g., tension and vibration). The theories yield promising, but not yet testable results. The search for experimental verification of string theory is in progress.

The United Nations have declared the year 2005 as the World Year of Physics.

Future directions

Main article: unsolved problems in physics.

As of 2004, research in physics is progressing on a large number of fronts.

In condensed matter physics, the biggest unsolved theoretical problem is the explanation for high-temperature superconductivity. Strong efforts, largely experimental, are being put into making workable spintronics and quantum computers.

In particle physics, the first pieces of experimental evidence for physics beyond the Standard Model have begun to appear. Foremost amongst this are indications that neutrinos have non-zero mass. These experimental results appear to have solved the long-standing solar neutrino problem in solar physics. The physics of massive neutrinos is currently an area of active theoretical and experimental research. In the next several years, particle accelerators will begin probing energy scales in the TeV range, in which experimentalists are hoping to find evidence for the Higgs boson and supersymmetric particles.

Theoretical attempts to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity into a single theory of quantum gravity, a program ongoing for over half a century, have not yet borne fruit. The current leading candidates are M-theory, superstring theory and loop quantum gravity.

Many astronomical phenomena have yet to be explained, including the existence of ultra-high energy cosmic rays and the anomalous rotation rates of galaxies. Theories that have been proposed to resolve these problems include doubly-special relativity, modified Newtonian dynamics, and the existence of dark matter. In addition, the cosmological predictions of the last several decades have been contradicted by recent evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

In the rush to solve high-energy, quantum, and astronomical physics, quite a bit of everyday physics (sometimes called quotidian physics by persons not working on such problems) was left behind between circa 1930 and 1970. Complex problems that seem like they could be solved by a clever application of dynamics and mechanics, like the formation of sandpiles, nodes in trickling water, the shape of water droplets, mechanisms of surface tension catastrophes, or self-sorting in shaken heterogeneous collections, still remain insufficiently characterized, and more importantly, poorly understood.

These complex phenomena have received growing attention since the 1970s for several reasons, not least of which has been the availability of modern mathematical methods and computers which enabled complex systems to be modelled in new ways. The interdisciplinary relevance of complex physics has also increased, as exemplified by the study of turbulence in aerodynamics or the observation of pattern formation in biological systems. A quote famous for its prophetic accuracy is due to Horace Lamb (1932): "I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic."


Suggested readings

Basic Physics

  • Paul Hewitt, Conceptual Physics with Practicing Physics Workbook (9th Edition), Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 2001, hardcover, 790 pages, ISBN 0321052021
  • Gregory S. Romine, Applied Physics: Concepts into Practice, Prentice Hall; Book & CD edition, hardcover, 711 pages, ISBN 0135324661
  • Jerry D. Wilson & Anthony J. Buffa, College Physics (5th edition), Prentice Hall, 2002, 2 volumes, hardcover, 1040 pages, ISBN 0130676446
  • David Halliday, Robert Resnick, and Jearl Walker, Fundamentals of Physics, 7th Edition, Wiley, 2004, paperback, 377 pages, ISBN 0471470619

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-12-2005 15:13:56
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