If you studied history, sociology, or English literature in your post-secondary education, it was probably in part because physics was too hard to understand or not as interesting. If you did not pay attention to quiet developments in the world of physics over the past several decades, you missed some very interesting important discoveries. Today, physics is not what our parents or even any of us who went to high school or university in the last quarter of the twentieth century learned because the physicists have been busy learning a lot of new things.
Quantum physics is one of the most important intellectual movements in human history. Today, quantum physics is everywhere: it explains how our computers work, how lasers transmit information across the Internet, and allows scientists to predict accurately the behavior of nearly every particle in nature. Its application continues to be fundamental in the investigation of the most expansive questions related to our world and the universe.
In ordinary discourse, a theory is a guess or a surmise, as in “that’s only a theory.” In science, however, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is supported by confirmed facts and/or observations. Verification of a theory’s predictions ensures its eventual acceptance by the community of scientists working in the particular discipline.
We all like the convenience of electrical energy. It lights our home and offices, and drives motors that are needed in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems that keep us buildings comfortable no matter what the temperature is outside. It’s essential for refrigeration that secures our food supply. In short, it makes modern life with all its comfort and conveniences possible.
Space exploration has dominated human imagination for the most of the last 125-odd years. Every year we learn more about what lies beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere. We learn about extraterrestrial resources, such as metals on asteroids or water on the Moon; we discover new exoplanets that may be able to support life; we research new technologies that will get us onto planets a little closer to home, such as Mars.
One of the amazing ideas to emerge from Einstein’s theory of general relativity was the possibility of gravitational waves rippling their way across the cosmos. It took a century to verify this prediction. Their existence was finally confirmed by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) in September 2015.
Cassini was the NASA-developed Saturn orbiter, and Huygens was the European-built probe that sat on-board, which would eventually descend on to the surface of Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan. Cassini will come to an end on 15th September 2017, when it makes its final approach to Saturn, diving in to the atmosphere (sending data as it goes), and finally burning up and disintegrating like a meteor.
Back to university means picking out the best textbooks to use for your studies. If you’re just starting out in your first year of studies or are pursuing further degree in a more specialized field, we have some great resources to explore. From the basics of fundamental physics to the intricacies of understanding light-matter interaction, this list provides the best starting point for under-graduates and post-graduates alike.
From Copernicus to Einstein, the field of Physics has changed drastically over time. With each new theory, further hypotheses appear that challenge conventional wisdom. Today, although topics such as the Big Bang Theory and General Relativity are well-established, there are still some debates that keep physicists up at night. What are your thoughts on the five of the biggest current debates in Physics?
Less than four centuries separate the end of the Renaissance and the theories of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton from the development of quantum physics at the turn of the 20th century. During this transformative time, royal academies of science, instrument-making workshops, and live science demonstrations exploded across the continent as learned and lay people alike absorbed the spectacles of newfound technologies, devices, and innovations.
We learn in school science class that matter is not continuous, but discrete. As a few of the philosophers of ancient Greece once speculated nearly two-and-a-half thousand years ago, matter comes in “lumps.” If we dig around online we learn that we make paper by pressing together moist fibers derived from pulp. The pulp has an internal structure built from molecules (such as cellulose), and molecules are in turn constructed from atoms (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen).
Michael Faraday transformed our understanding of the physical world when he realised that electromagnetic forces are carried by a field permeating the whole of space. This idea was formalized by James Clerk-Maxwell who constructed a unified theory of electromagnetism in which beams of light are undulations in the electromagnetic field. Maxwell’s theory implies that visible light is just one part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but it’s also 400 times closer to earth, which means that remarkably, the two bodies appear to us as exactly the same size. For 14 days a month, the orbiting moon is on the ‘sunny’ side of the spinning earth, and the sunlight casts a shadow. Almost all the time, that shadow is projected way off into space; but on very particular occasions, the shadow falls onto the earth – the moon is obscuring our view of the sun.
Contrary to common belief, black holes don’t swallow everything that comes nearby. In fact, they expel a good part of the gas of the centre of galaxies. This happens when a wind of ionized gas is formed in the vicinity of the black hole. In the case of supermassive black holes that occur at the centre of many galaxies, they produce a wind that can interact with the galaxy itself shaping its evolution through time.
The singer Madonna had a worldwide hit record in the 1980s (‘Material Girl’) in which she described herself as ‘the material girl living in a material world’. This is a prescient phrase for the world of today some 30 years after the release of this record. Although Madonna may have been referring to wealth and ‘cold hard cash’ in her song, the rapid development of goods for professional and consumer use really do put us at the mercy of all things material.
As eclipse 2017 quickly approaches, Americans—from astronomers to photographers to space enthusiasts—are preparing to witness the celestial wonder that is totality. Phenomenon found within planetary science has long driven us to observe and study space. Through a shared desire to dismantle and reconstruct the theories behind our solar system, ancient Greek philosophers and scientists built the foundation of planetary astronomy.