Language is how we think and learn, so when we’re faced with unfamiliar terminology we freeze up. Students are often put off the sciences because they find the language baffling.

Physicists have the tendency to waffle on in their science jargon unaware that the majority of us don’t understand what they regard as everyday chatter.

And yet, one of the greatest minds of our time, Stephen Hawking, was able to explain the universe in the simplest language that everybody could relate to.

Stephen Hawking mural
True genius is able to simplify where others mystify. The late Stephen Hawking unravelled the mystery of science for us all to understand - Unsplash

In truth, science vocabulary isn’t as mysterious as it may seem at first glance. The trick is to understand the fundamental building blocks that make up the terminology of physics.

So we’ve put together a glossary to get you started!

What we’ve set out to do is provide you with more than just a standard definition by giving you a fuller yet simple explanation to some challenging terms and help you understand how they all fit together within the realm of physics.

What are the Categories of Physical Science?

Physics as a whole is split into two main spheres: classical physics and modern physics. And here’s how to tell the two apart:

Classical physics refers to scientific discovery pre 1900.

Modern physics is all scientific discovery post 1900 – usually the real tell tale is that modern physics involves quantum mechanics and relativity.

If you were to study classical physics you would likely encounter the following spheres of physical science:

Classical Mechanics:

The research of physical objects including all heavenly bodies such as planets and stars.

Newton’s Laws of Motion:

Explains the relationship between physical bodies and the forces that act on it and cause it to move.

Thermodynamics:

The branch of science dealing with the relationship between heat and other forms of energy.

Theory of relativity:

Albert Einstein developed two theories of relativity which encompass both special relativity (the relationship between space and time) and general relativity (the effects of gravitation on space and time)

Chaos Theory:

This is actually a branch of mathematics that serves to find scientific patterns in seemingly random systems.

One of the best ways to illustrate the implementation of chaos theory is by looking at the weather.

tornado in field
Meteorologists know the ideal conditions for tornadoes yet we can't predict exactly when or where they'll hit, this is chaos theory in motion -Unsplash

To the average person weather can seem very temperamental and unpredictable with storm clouds suddenly appearing on the horizon or heat waves followed by cold fronts.

However within this randomness we find predictable patterns but what makes the chaos is the way the extreme sensitivity of the weather systems. Meteorologists can make scientifically accurate predictions according to the existing conditions and forecast meteorological events days in advance but one small fluctuation can throw all the predictions completely out.

The famous mathematician, Edward Lorenzo, had a concise explanation for the chaos theory:

“ The present determines the future but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

Taking a Look at the Role of Modern Physics

What sets modern physics apart from classical physics is the depth of scientific explanations that are now possible thanks to the advances of technology which in turn has provided a much higher standard of intellectual insight into phenomena that were previously shrouded in mystery.

Modern theories like quantum mechanics and relativity allow for greater insight.

Modern physics opens up extreme worlds that were previously inaccessible from the tiniest molecules to the vastness of the universe and the ability to measure greater distances and higher speeds.

Classical physics generally deals with what is regarded as ‘the middles’.

How Modern and Classical Physics Compliment Each Other

We can use the observable changes in gas as a practical example of the role of both classical and modern physics in a research situation.

Studying a gas at 0º Celsius could be observed using classical principles but if we were to investigate the same gas at absolute zero (-273.15º Celsius) we would turn to our knowledge that stems from modern physics.

Absolute zero is the lowest point on the thermodynamic temperature scale. It’s at this point that the fundamental particles occurring in nature no longer contain heat energy and have very minimal vibrational motion aside from quantum mechanical and zero-point energy-induced motion. Cryogenics occurs in this zone of extreme sub-zero temperatures.

Every Scientist must embrace the Classics to achieve the Modern

A student who chooses to major in physics cannot claim to be either a classical of modern physicist because both disciplines are equally important to the scientific world and a scientist (or an aspiring undergraduate scientist) can never do the one without the other.

It’s not like studying music where you can branch into a genre of music such as classical or jazz and focus only on that.

Each era of science is like a building block and if you remove one, the entire structure collapses. However, budding scientists can choose a particular field of scientific interest and focus on specialising on a specific branch of physics.

What kind of Physicist are You?

As a fan of The Big Bang Theory you may be inspired by Sheldon’s genius and decide to be a theoretical physicist which involves using mathematics to predict the results of scientific theories.

For those of you who relate more to Leonard and his antics in the laboratory – being an experimental physicist may be just the thing for you.

The astrophysicist of the group, Raj, will appeal to those of you who gaze up at the night sky in awe of the movement and nature of heavenly bodies.

Then there’s the option to become a particle physicist and study all the particles that make up matter and radiation at a subatomic level.

If you were to become an applied physicist it would mean you could assist in developing new technologies and also be involved in challenging engineering projects. Applied physics is like the bridge between physical science and engineering.

A biophysicist analyses biological phenomenon by using methods that stem from physics.

Not to be confused with nuclear physicists, atomic physicists are the people responsible for helping us see the world at an atomic level.

There is a difference between atomic physics and nuclear physics in spite of the synonymous usage in English of the words atomic and nuclear.

A nuclear physicist will focus on the actual nucleus of the atom. There are a number of medical technologies that we take for granted today but wouldn’t be accessible to patients in need if it weren’t for nuclear physics. The MRI, PET scans and various spectroscopy are the result of nuclear physics.

Condensed Matter Physics

There’s a branch of science called condensed matter physics that combines a number of scientific disciplines in an effort to study the behaviour of solids and liquids. It’s currently the largest and most active branch of science and is responsible for making the transistors and semiconductor chips that we find in our data storage devices such as cell phones and mp3 players.

smartphone and earphones on table
If it wasn't for condensed matter physics we wouldn't be able to carry our music around in our pockets - Unsplash

Theoretical physicists, particle physicists and those involved with nanotechnology pool their knowledge together with chemistry to further this exciting and dynamic field of study.

Getting to Grips with Physics Jargon

No matter what field of scientific study sparks your interest, there are numerous terms that any scientist should know off the top of their head – so let’s dive in and get familiar with the lingo of the scientific world!

Quark:

Subatomic particles that carry a fractional electric charge and that make up the protons and neutrons inside the nucleus of atoms.

These fascinating little elementary particles are categorised into six types which are oddly named flavours. The flavours are up, down, top, bottom, charm and strange.

Hadron:

These are made of two or more quarks that are held together by the strong force almost the same way molecules are held together by electromagnetic force.

Neutrino: the quickest kind of subatomic particle that can almost travel at the speed of light. These little guys have a mass of almost zero and no electrical charge.

Quantum:

This is Latin for ‘amount’ and has become associated with describing the smallest possible unit of any physical property. This term is connected to numerous fields of science that deal with particles at an atomic level.

Isotope:

Atoms within a chemical element that have the same amount of protons but different amounts of neutrons.

An example of an isotope can be found in the element uranium. Uranium has two types, uranium-235 and uranium-238, which has 3 more neutrons. The uranium used in power stations and nuclear weapons is 235.

Waves:

We can see the waves of the ocean or in a flag rippling in the wind, but there are so many more waves that are invisible to the naked eye. In science, a wave is associated with any disturbance that transports energy from one place to another without transporting matter.

Waves can be divided into two broad categories: mechanical or electromagnetic.

Examples of waves are sound waves, microwaves and radio waves.

No matter what field of science you ultimately get involved in you can rest assured that as you gradually become familiar with this baffling language you will suddenly find yourself a fluent and proficient master of science.

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Kyla

Born from a family of creatives, Kyla has a passion for the arts and interior design.