Whether it’s the fundamentals of fluid mechanics such as Archimedes’ principle that dates back to its discovery in 250BCE or the pursuit in quantum mechanics that strives to prove quantum gravity, the drive to understand the laws that govern our universe have been a common theme throughout the ages.
But ask most people and they’ll agree that physical science was a dreaded subject at school. Physics education has become a real concern and science teachers are a scarce commodity.
Why is it that we find the classical physics principles of the world we live in, so baffling?
Physics is a very broad field, from particle physics that investigates matter at a subatomic level all the way to astronomy where physicists attempt to measure our universe. What we must remember is that having a basic education in physical sciences can open up a world of opportunity after school.
Obviously undergraduate students will be required to take a basic physics course in order to master the elementary laws of physics before choosing a specialised branch of modern physics such as computational physics or astrophysics.
A physics and maths tutor can help learners get to grips with the basics laws and theories of physical science and teach kids how to put them to good use.
Remember that every good physicist also needs to be a good mathematician.
As we continue we’ll investigate a number of famous scientists who’ve been leaders in physics. But first, let’s take a little time getting to grips with some of the important scientific jargon ...
Talk Like a Physicist
There’s no argument that ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is one of the best comedy shows of all time, but let’s be honest – how much of Sheldon’s nerdy lingo do you really understand?
Sure it’s funny and it’s probably exposed the majority of us to more science talk than we would ever have heard otherwise. But truthfully, most viewers would more easily relate to Penny because the terminology goes way over our heads.
However, with just a little effort we can make a lot more sense of the references to concepts like:
In physics this refers to the smallest quantity of radiant energy.
There are numerous branches of science where studies are done at the quantum level:
- Quantum mechanics which includes quantum field theory that’s concerned with energy at its most minute scale, this can also be referred to as quantum physics, quantum theory or matrix mechanics.
- Quantum entanglement occurs when particles come into contact with each other in such a way that the quantum state of the particles can no longer be described independently of the state of the other particles (even when they are separated again).
- Quantum optics is the scientific investigation of light and how it interacts with matter at a submicroscopic level. Basically it’s applying quantum mechanics to photons (photons are the basic unit that makes up all light).
- Quantum tunnelling is where a subatomic particle passes through a potential barrier. This is a true quantum mechanics phenomenon because the particles don’t require the potential energy it would usually take to pass through a potential barrier. (Hey kids, this is where you can start thinking about the science behind super heroes!)
- Quantum electrodynamics refers to the combining of quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity.
There are still some quantum theories that haven’t quite been proven yet. For instance the idea of quantum gravity – scientists haven’t been able to prove this force by means of quantum mechanics ... yet.
When studying anything to do with the quantum realm you’ll encounter a lot of references to a few particular subatomic particles.
Firstly Bosons and Fermions pop up a lot of the time.
They are named after the physicists that put them on the scientific map, Styendra Nath Bose and Enrico Fermi respectively.
Then you get the Hadron which is a particle comprising of more than one quark. Hadrons are essentially the bridging particles between Fermions and Bosons.
But what are Quarks? These are particles that have the singular unique capacity of being able to experience all four fundamental forces.
Electromagnetism, Gravity, The Strong Nuclear Force and The Weak Nuclear Force.
And can I just say, “May the Force be with you...” as you attempt to unravel the meaning of these terms.
What do these forces actually do though? Have a look below at the brief explanations listed from strongest to weakest.
- Strong nuclear force – holds atoms together.
- Weak nuclear force – responsible for causing beta decay in atoms.
- Electromagnetism – they physical interaction occurring between electrically charged particles.
- Gravity – the force attracting to bodies of matter to each other, the greater the mass of an object, the greater it’s gravitational pull.
Bear in mind that although all these theories sound very concrete, physicists are merely scraping the top of the iceberg when it comes to understanding physical forces at the subatomic level. Here is a great clip that gives a concise explanation on the four fundamental forces.
Now that we’ve covered a few of the basics of quantum physics terminology let’s take a look at some of the famous scientists that have changed the way we comprehend our physical world.
Physicists We Should Know About
It was during the Renaissance that physics became a recognised discipline in academic circles. This does not however mean that an investigation into physical phenomena only began in the 15th century. Man had been researching the physical world for centuries before then.
To be sure, Galileo played an instrumental role studying the cosmos and disproving a number of previously accepted theories. However it was William Gilbert who really deserves the honour of being named the first truly modern scientist.
It was William Gilbert who stressed the absolute obligation to demonstrate scientific findings with sound experiments and arguments.
As crazy as it may sound today, until Gilbert voiced his opinion, physicists hadn’t felt obliged to prove their theories with experiments and formulas in an effort to make it possible to replicate their work.
Gilbert set a new standard that challenged the scientific community to up their game and as his colleagues embraced his new ethics it resulted in physical science progressing faster than ever before.
Modern physicists continue to follow in William Gilberts footsteps by thoroughly researching and proving their theories.
Theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Alan Guth, is well recognised for his work on the theory of cosmic inflation or the inflation theory that brings us closer to understanding the Big Bang.
When it comes to string theory and cosmic inflation, professor of mathematical physics, Edward Witten has conducted extensive successful research.
Stephen Hawking (and Roger Penrose)
The late Stephen Hawking was taught by Roger Penrose. Their relationship expanded from student and teacher and they continued to collaborate on their investigation of black holes. In fact their collaboration was so successful that they were jointly awarded the Wolfe Prize.
Phenomenal Female Physicists
The number of influential women in physics may not yet be as great as men but their contribution to the field is invaluable.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Postgraduate student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, made the groundbreaking discovery of pulsars in 1967. She was subsequently overlooked for a Nobel prize and the award went to her male advisor. However decades later she has been awarded a ‘Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics’ and credited for making “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century.”
The Higgs boson was discovered through the famous ATLAS project led by female particle physicist and director-general of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti.
Sandra Faber, an astrophysicist focusing her research on evolving galaxies, was the first person to propose that galaxies are brighter because their stars are travelling faster.
Understanding Important Physics Concepts
It doesn’t matter how accomplished a scientist may be, everyone from science teachers to astrophysicists all rely on the same fundamental concepts to prove their theories and discoveries.
This huge and ever expanding universe in which we all exist is full of energy and matter. Just thinking about the universe can take your breath away.
How do you even begin to comprehend something that apparently has no end, it is essentially mostly unknown territory out there.
The forces that control the physics of the universe are the very same forces that influence particles on the subatomic level.
It’s important to remember that these forces act upon matter externally. Matter is either attracted, repelled, bound or created.
Knowing the Difference Between Force and Energy
Another mistake that’s easy to make is confusing force with energy.
They are two entirely different things. Energy is found in everything, it just takes on different forms, such as potential energy, kinetic energy or radiant energy.
Energy is carried through waves: sound waves, microwaves and gravitational waves all transport energy. However they don’t have the ability to transport matter.
Of all these energy waves, gravitational waves seem to be the most elusive energy phenomena. In short, these waves are ripples in space and time that are generated by accelerated masses i.e. the rotation of planets.
In 1916 Albert Einstein made a prediction of gravitational waves but it was only 100 years later that the first wave was successfully detected.
The Four Fundamental States of Matter:
Plasma is a special state of matter that is produced when a gas is heated to such an extreme temperature that the electrons are ripped away from the atoms and becomes highly electrically conductive.
Obviously the plasma that makes up the sun and the plasma found in neon signs have very different compositions. It takes dedicated study in the field of plasma physics to really get to grips with this incredible state of matter.
Once you get a handle on the basic concepts of physical science everything starts falling into place.
Get a good foundation in elementary physics and you could go on to be a great theoretical physicist or specialise in studying condensed matter which is becoming one of the most exciting fields of physics these days. Anything is possible!
The sky’s the limit!