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Physics controls the mechanics of the universe.
Physics is a science. Physics is concerned with the discovery and understanding of the fundamental laws which govern matter, energy, space and time. Physics deals with the elementary constituents of the universe and their interactions, as well as the analysis of systems which are best understood in terms of these fundamental principles. Physics is a study of the inorganic, physical world, as opposed to the organic world of biology, physiology, etc. Chemistry concerning the electro-chemical interactions of substances overlaps with physics.
Introduction to physics.
Physics attempts to describe the natural world by the application of the scientific method, including modelling by theoreticians. Formerly, physics included the study of natural philosophy, its counterpart which had been called "physics" (earlier physike) from classical times up to the separation of physics from philosophy as a positive science in the 19th century, as the study of the changing world by philosophy. Mixed questions, of which solutions can be attempted through the applications of both disciplines (e.g. the divisibility of the atom) can involve natural philosophy in physics (the science) and vice versa.
Connected studies of physics.
Many other sciences and fields of thought are related to physics.
Discoveries in physics find connections throughout the other natural sciences as they regard the basic constituents of the Universe. Some of the phenomena studied in physics, such as the phenomenon of conservation of energy, are common to all material systems. These are often referred to as laws of physics. Other phenomena, such as superconductivity, stem from these laws, but are not laws themselves because they only appear in some systems. Physics is often said to be the "fundamental science", because each of the other sciences (biology, Chemistry, geology, physiology, archaeology, anthropology, etc.) deals with particular types of material systems that obey the laws of physics. For example, chemistry is the science of matter (such as atoms and molecules) and the chemical substances that they form in the bulk. The structure, reactivity, and properties of a chemical compound are determined by the properties of the underlying molecules, which can be described by areas of physics such as quantum mechanics (called in this case Quantum chemistry), Thermodynamics, and electromagnetism. (Refer to Branches of physics)
Physics relies on mathematics, which provides the logical framework in which physical laws can be precisely formulated and their predictions quantified. Physical definitions, models and theories are invariably expressed using mathematical relations. There is a large area of research intermediate between physics and mathematics, known as mathematical physics.
Physics is also closely related to Engineering and technology. For instance, electrical engineering is the study of the practical application of electromagnetism. Statics, a subfield of mechanics, is responsible for the building of bridges. Further, Physicists, or practitioners of physics, invent and design processes and devices, such as the transistor, whether in basic or applied research. Experimental physicists design and perform experiments with particle accelerators, nuclear reactors, telescopes, barometers, synchrotrons, cyclotrons, spectrometers, lasers, and other equipment.
Beyond the known Universe, the field of Theoretical Physics also deals with hypothetical issues, such as parallel universes, a multiverse, or whether the universe could have expanded as predominantly antimatter rather than matter.
Branches of physics
Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena, from quarks to black holes, from individual atoms to the many-body systems of superconductors.
Central theories of physics.
While physics deals with a wide variety of systems, there are certain theories that are used by all physicists. Each of these theories were experimentally tested numerous times and found correct as an approximation of nature (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 discovered in the 20th century, three centuries after the original formulation of classical mechanics by Isaac Newton (1642-1727). These "central theories" are important tools for research into more specialized topics, and any physicist, regardless of his or her specialization, is expected to be literate in them.
Major fields of physics.
Contemporary research in physics is divided into several distinct fields that study different aspects of the material world.
Since the 20th century, the individual fields of physics have become increasingly specialized, and nowadays it is not uncommon for physicists to work in a single field for their entire careers. "Universalists" like Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Lev Landau (1908-1968), who were comfortable working in multiple fields of physics, are now very rare.
Many fields and subfields of physics are listed in the table below.
Classical, quantum and modern physics.
Since the construction of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century, it generally became evident to the physical community that it would be preferable for many known descriptions of nature to be quantized, that is, to follow the postulates of quantum mechanics. To this effect, all results that were not quantized are called classical: this includes the Special Theory and General Theory of Relativity. Simply because a result is classical does not mean that it was discovered before the advent of quantum mechanics. Classical theories are, generally, much easier to work with and much research is still being conducted on them without the express aim of quantization. However, there exist problems in physics in which classical and quantum aspects must be combined to attain some approximation or limit that may acquire several forms as the passage from classical to quantum mechanics is often difficult - such problems are termed semiclassical.
However, because relativity and quantum mechanics provide the most complete known description of fundamental interactions, and because the changes brought by these two frameworks to the physicist's world view were revolutionary, the term modern physics is used to describe physics which relies on these two theories. Colloquially, modern physics can be described as the physics of extremes: from systems at the extremely small (atoms, nuclei, fundamental particles) to the extremely large (the universe) and of the extremely fast (relativity).
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. The great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), who made fundamental contributions to both theory and experimentation in Nuclear physics, was a notable exception. In contrast, almost all the successful theorists in biology and Chemistry (e.g. American quantum chemist and biochemistry Linus Pauling) have also been experimentalists, though this is changing as of late.
Roughly speaking, theorists seek to develop through abstractions and mathematical models theories that can both describe and interpret 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. However, theoretical research in physics may further be considered to draw from mathematical physics and computational physics in addition to experimentation. Progress in physics frequently comes about when experimentalists make a discovery that existing theories cannot account for, necessitating the formulation of new theories. Likewise, ideas arising from theory often inspire new experiments. In the absence of experiment, theoretical research can go in the wrong direction; this is one of the criticisms that has been leveled against M-Theory, a popular theory in high-energy physics for which no practical experimental test has ever been devised.
Discredited theories of physics.
Scientific theories sometimes end up being discredited or superseded. In some of these cases the theory was announced prematurely and gained press attention before being discredited. Other times an established theory is overthrown and a new one erected in its place. Some famous examples are:
Phenomenology is intermediate between experiment and theory. It is more abstract and includes more logical steps than experiment, but is more directly tied to experiment than theory. The boundaries between theory and phenomenology, and between phenomenology and experiment, are somewhat fuzzy and to some extent depend on the understanding and intuition of the scientist describing these. An example is Einstein's 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light".
Applied physics is physics that is intended for a particular technological or practical use, as for example in Engineering, as opposed to basic research. This approach is similar to that of applied mathematics. Applied physics is rooted in the fundamental truths and basic concepts of the physical sciences but is concerned with the utilization of scientific principles in practical devices and systems, and in the application of physics in other areas of science. "Applied" is distinguished from "pure" by a subtle combination of factors such as the motivation and attitude of researchers and the nature of the relationship to the technology or science that may be affected by the work.
History of physics. Famous physicists, 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. The character of the universe was also a mystery, for instance 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 first theories were largely couched in philosophical terms, and never verified by systematic experimental testing as is popular today. The works of Ptolemy and Aristotle, however, were also not always found to match everyday observations. There were exceptions and there are anachronisms - for example, Indian philosophers and astronomers gave many correct descriptions in atomism and astronomy, and the Greek thinker Archimedes derived many correct quantitative descriptions of mechanics and hydrostatics.
The willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers eventually resulted in a period of major scientific advancements, now known as the Scientific Revolution of the late 17th century. The precursors to the scientific revolution can be traced back to the important developments made in India and Persia, including the elliptical model of the planets based on the heliocentric Solar System of gravitation developed by Indian mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata; the basic ideas of atomic theory developed by Hindu and Jaina philosophers; the theory of light being equivalent to energy particles developed by the Indian Buddhist scholars Dignaga and Dharmakirti; the optical theory of Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haitham (Alhazen); the Astrolabe invented by the Persian astronomer Muhammad al-Fazari; and the significant flaws in the Ptolemaic system pointed out by Persian scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi.
As the influence of the Arab Empire expanded to Europe, the works of Aristotle preserved by the Arabs, and the works of the Indians and Persians, became known in Europe by the 12th and 13th centuries. This eventually led to the scientific revolution which culminated with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by the mathematician, physicist, alchemist and inventor Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727).
The Scientific Revolution is held by most historians (e.g., Howard Margolis) to have begun in 1543, when the first printed copy of Nicolaus Copernicus's De Revolutionibus (most of which had been written years prior but whose publication had been delayed) was brought to the influential Polish astronomer from Nuremberg.
Further significant advances were made over the following century 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 modern scientific method. Galileo formulated and successfully tested several results in Dynamics, in particular the Law of Inertia. In 1687, Newton published the Principia, 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 re-formulated and extended by Leonhard Euler, French mathematician Joseph-Louis Comte de Lagrange, Irish mathematical physicist William Rowan Hamilton, and others, who produced new results in mathematical physics. The law of universal 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, the English physicist and chemist 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 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 Fields. These 20 equations were later reduced, using vector calculus, to a set of four equations by Oliver Heaviside.
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 the theory of special relativity in 1905. 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 stress-energy tensor creates curvature of Spacetime and forms the basis of general relativity. Further work on Einstein's field equation produced results which predicted the Big Bang, black holes, and the expanding universe. Einstein believed in a static universe and tried (and failed) to fix his equation to allow for this. However, by 1929 Edwin Hubble's astronomical observations suggested that the universe is expanding.
From the late 17th century onwards, Thermodynamics was developed by physicist and chemist 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. Ludwig Boltzmann, in the 19th century, is responsible for the modern form of statistical mechanics.
In 1895, Röntgen 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, Joseph J. 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 John Dalton.)
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 1911, Ernest 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.
In 1900, Max Planck published his explanation of blackbody radiation. This equation assumed that radiators are quantized, which proved to be the opening argument in the edifice that would become quantum mechanics. By introducing discrete energy levels, Planck, Einstein, Niels Bohr, and others developed quantum theories to explain various anomalous experimental results. Quantum mechanics was formulated in 1925 by Heisenberg and in 1926 by Schrödinger and Paul Dirac, in two different ways that both explained the preceding heuristic 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. During the 1920s Schrödinger, 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.
Quantum field theory was formulated in order to extend quantum mechanics to be consistent with special relativity. It was devised in the late 1940s with work by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, and Freeman Dyson. They formulated the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes the electromagnetic interaction, and successfully explained the Lamb shift. Quantum field theory provided the framework for modern Particle physics, which studies fundamental forces and elementary particles.
Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, in the 1950s, discovered an unexpected asymmetry in the decay of a subatomic particle. In 1954, Yang and Robert Mills then developed a class of gauge theories which provided the framework for understanding the nuclear forces (Yang, Mills 1954). The theory for the strong nuclear force was first proposed by Murray Gell-Mann. The electroweak force, the unification of the weak nuclear force with electromagnetism, was proposed by Sheldon Lee Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg and confirmed in 1964 by James Watson Cronin and Val Fitch. This led to the so-called Standard Model of particle physics in the 1970s, which successfully describes all the elementary particles observed to date.
Quantum mechanics also provided the theoretical tools for condensed matter physics, whose largest branch is solid state physics. It studies the physical behavior of solids and liquids, including phenomena such as crystal structures, semiconductivity, and superconductivity. The pioneers of condensed matter physics include Felix Bloch, who created a quantum mechanical description of the behavior of electrons in crystal structures in 1928. The transistor was developed by physicists John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain and William Bradford Shockley in 1947 at Bell Telephone Laboratories.
The two themes of the 20th century, general relativity and quantum mechanics, appear inconsistent 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 composed, 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 declared the year 2005, the centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis, as the World Year of Physics.
Future directions of physics.
Research in physics is progressing constantly on a large number of fronts, and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
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 these 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 and cosmological phenomena have yet to be satisfactorily explained, including the existence of ultra-high energy cosmic rays, the baryon asymmetry, the acceleration of the universe and the anomalous rotation rates of galaxies.
Although much progress has been made in high-energy, quantum, and astronomical physics, many everyday phenomena, involving complexity, chaos, or turbulence are still poorly understood. Complex problems that seem like they could be solved by a clever application of dynamics and mechanics, such as 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 are unsolved. 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 modeled 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. In 1932, Horace Lamb correctly prophesied the success of the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the near-stagnant progress in the study of turbulence:
Notes about physics.
Undergraduate texts on specific topics
More About Physics.
Dec 20, 2005 - The physical constants of the Universe are thought to have remained unchanged since the Big Bang; many predictions made by cosmologists depend on it. An international team of researchers are using the National Science Foundation's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to see if things really have gone on unchanged for billions of years. They're looking to measure two universal constants: the ratio of mass between protons and electrons, and something called the fine structure constant.
Nov 25, 2005 - Theoretical physicist Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss from Case Western University and author of Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond has agreed to answer questions from the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today forum. If you've got puzzling questions about physics, multiple dimensions, or any of his books, and post a question. We'll gather up the best questions and pass them along to Dr. Krauss to answer. I'll post his answers back in Universe Today when I get them.
Nov 17, 2005 - NASA/Stanford's Gravity Probe B spacecraft recently wrapped up a year of gathering data about the Earth's gravity field. If Einstein was correct, the Earth's rotation should twist up our planet's gravity field like a vortex. Scientists at NASA and Stanford are now analyzing the mountains of data sent back by the spacecraft to detect any shift in its orientation, which would indicate this vortex of gravity.
Sep 28, 2005 - Scientists working to understand the nature of the Universe have developed some interesting theories that propose we have many more dimensions curled up inside the three we're comfortable with. A pair of researchers have done the math to calculate how the Universe could shape up after the Big Bang, and found that it favours three and seven dimensions. In a seven dimension Universe, gravity would diminish greatly with distance, and planets would have difficulty forming stable orbits around stars.
Aug 1, 2005 - Physicists have used the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to create quark-gluon plasma; a mysterious form of matter that was probably present in the first moments after the Big Bang. The team created it by smashing the nuclei of gold atoms together at relativistic speeds. The resulting explosion of particles lasted just 10-20 seconds. Astronomers think that large neutron stars might go into a quark-gluon phase before they collapse into black holes.
Jun 22, 2005 - Physicists at MIT have successfully created a new form of matter in their laboratory; a gas that shows superfluidity at higher temperatures. Superfluid gasses, which can flow without resistance, have been created before, but only at very cold temperatures just above Absolute Zero. Matter like this could exist in the Universe's most extreme places, like at the heart of black holes, neutron stars, or in the early stages of the Big Bang.
Apr 18, 2005 - Researchers from UC Berkeley have looked into the past to confirm that a fundamental aspect of the Universe - the fine structure constant, or alpha - has remain unchanged for at least 7 billion years. This constant shows up in many formulae dealing with electricity and magnetism, and helps describe how radiation is emitted by atoms. This conflicts with a recent announcement from Australian researchers that described a change in alpha over time.
Apr 11, 2005 - An international researchers has found evidence that a universal constant in nature which governs the strength of the molecular bonds between atoms - called "alpha" - might have changed over time. The strength of alpha is very important, and life couldn't exist if it was much different from its current value. The team examined the light from distant quasars billions of light-years away, and measured the unique fingerprint of its light being absorbed by clouds of gas. They compared this fingerprint to known values here on Earth to measure the difference.
Mar 5, 2005 - Scientists have begun firing a beam of neutrinos through the Earth to a target 735 km (456 miles) away. This experiment will help the team understand how neutrinos can pass through tremendous amounts of matter, but barely interact. And if they're lucky, they'll catch the particles as they morph into different varieties: electron, muon and tau. One detector, at Fermilab, near Chicago, will sample the beam as it leaves the Main Injector. Another detector is stationed deep underground at the Soudan Mine in Northern Minnesota. Only muon neutrinos will be generated, so if the other varieties show up, scientists will know it happened in between the detectors.
Dec 21, 2004 - An international team of researchers have recently launched a huge balloon, the size of a football field, in Antarctica. The instrument, called BESS-Polar launched from McMurdo Station on December 13, and will spend at least 10 days at an altitude of 39 km (24 miles); at the edge of space. The experimenters hope that BESS-Polar will be able to detect any evidence of antimatter created during the Big Bang. And as a bonus, if the instrument can find low-energy antiprotons, it would be evidence of radiation from evaporating black holes, predicted by Stephen Hawking.
Nov 1, 2004 - Physicists have puzzled for more than a century about the nature of time. Why does it go in one direction? Time could go backwards, and physics formulas would still work properly. Researchers from the University of Chicago think they might have an answer: we live in a universe of ever increasing entropy. Instead of one Big Bang going off, and then the Universe expands and cools forever, small fluctuations in nearly empty space could set off new Big Bangs - the Universe would never reach equilibrium.
Links For Physics.DC Physics - A physics search engine and website directory plus extensive crosslinks and monthly feature articles.
Free Astronomy Wallpapers - Various astronomy related wallpapers for the desktop.
General Relativity Theory - an elementary introduction in two picture stories and mathematical appendix
Hector Parr's Essays - Essays on a number of topics including Infinity, The Collapse of the Universe, Quantum Measurement and Bell's Inequality.
Light and Matter - educational materials for physics and astronomy
Photon Structure - Positronic/negatronic nature of light, pair formation generating matter and photon decay as an explanation of the background red-shift
Physics Forums - The premier science community. Discuss science topics with other members. Vote in polls, read articles and more!
PhysicsWeb - Global news, Physics World magazine and TIPTOP: the essential web resource for physicists
Theory for Gravitic Propulsion - Theory and computer model for Matter, Energy, Space-Time and the Gravitic Effect
ToeQuest - A growing community of researchers seeking the Theory of Everything. Explore topics on quantum anomalies, physics, philosophy, consciousness, and mind.
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