Physics, science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. In the broadest sense, physics (from the Greek physikos) is concerned with all aspects of nature on both the macroscopic and submicroscopic levels. Its scope of study encompasses not only the behaviour of objects under the action of given forces but also the nature and origin of gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear force fields. Its ultimate objective is the formulation of a few comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all such disparate phenomena.
Physics is the basic physical science. Until rather recent times physics and natural philosophy were used interchangeably for the science whose aim is the discovery and formulation of the fundamental laws of nature. As the modern sciences developed and became increasingly specialized, physics came to denote that part of physical science not included in astronomy, chemistry, geology, and engineering. Physics plays an important role in all the natural sciences, however, and all such fields have branches in which physical laws and measurements receive special emphasis, bearing such names as astrophysics, geophysics, biophysics, and even psychophysics. Physics can, at base, be defined as the science of matter, motion, and energy. Its laws are typically expressed with economy and precision in the language of mathematics
Natural philosophy has its origins in Greece during the Archaic period (650 BCE – 480 BCE), when pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales rejected non-naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena and proclaimed that every event had a natural cause. They proposed ideas verified by reason and observation, and many of their hypotheses proved successful in experiment; for example, atomism was found to be correct approximately 2000 years after it was proposed by Leucippus and his pupil Democritus.
A model is a representation of something that is often too difficult (or impossible) to display directly. While a model’s design is justified using experimental information, it is only accurate under limited situations. An example is the commonly used “planetary model” of the atom, in which electrons are pictured as orbiting the nucleus, analogous to the way planets orbit the Sun. We cannot observe electron orbits directly, but the mental image helps explain the observations we can make, such as the emission of light from hot gases. Physicists use models for a variety of purposes. For example, models can help physicists analyze a scenario and perform a calculation, or they can be used to represent a situation in the form of a computer simulation.
A theory is an explanation for patterns in nature that is supported by scientific evidence and verified multiple times by various groups of researchers. Some theories include models to help visualize phenomena, whereas others do not. Newton’s theory of gravity, for example, does not require a model or mental image, because we can observe the objects directly with our own senses. The kinetic theory of gases, on the other hand, makes use of a model in which a gas is viewed as being composed of atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules are too small to be observed directly with our senses—thus, we picture them mentally to understand what our instruments tell us about the behavior of gases.
Contemporary research in physics can be broadly divided into nuclear and particle physics; condensed matter physics; atomic, molecular, and optical physics; astrophysics; and applied physics. Some physics departments also support physics education research and physics outreach.
Since the 20th century, the individual fields of physics have become increasingly specialised, and today most physicists work in a single field for their entire careers. “Universalists” such as Einstein (1879–1955) and Lev Landau (1908–1968), who worked in multiple fields of physics, are now very rare
Mechanics is generally taken to mean the study of the motion of objects (or their lack of motion) under the action of given forces. Classical mechanics is sometimes considered a branch of applied mathematics. It consists of kinematics, the description of motion, and dynamics, the study of the action of forces in producing either motion or static equilibrium (the latter constituting the science of statics). The 20th-century subjects of quantum mechanics, crucial to treating the structure of matter, subatomic particles, superfluidity, superconductivity, neutron stars, and other major phenomena, and relativistic mechanics, important when speeds approach that of light, are forms of mechanics that will be discussed later in this section.