What is physics?
Physics is an organized way of conversing with nature. Physicists ask questions; nature responds. For many questions, the answers are almost predictable, but when the question is a particularly good one, the answer can be unexpected and gives us new knowledge of the way the world works. These are the moment physicists live for.
Physics is often described as the study of matter and energy. It is concerned with how matter and energy relate to each other, and how they affect each other over time and through space. Physicists ask the fundamental questions how did the universe begin? How and of what is it made? How does it change? What rules govern its behavior? The fundamental ideas of physics underlie all basic science–astronomy, biology, chemistry, and geology. Physics also is essential to the applied science and engineering that has taken our world from the horse and the buggy to the supersonic jet, from the candle to the laser, from the pony express to the fax, from the beads of an abacus to the chips of a computer.
Today physics is as exciting as ever. The animated conversation between physicists and nature goes on and it shows no sign of stopping.
Physics in everyday life
The most basic of the sciences, physics, is all around us every day. If you’ve ever wondered what makes lightning, why a boomerang returns, how ice skaters can spin so fast, how Michael Jordan can “fly,” why waves crash on the beach, how that tiny computer can do complicated problems, or how long it takes light from a star to reach us, you have been thinking about some of the same things physicists study every day.
Physicists like to ask questions. They try to find answers for almost everything–from when the universe began to why soda fizzes. If you like to explore and figure out why things are the way they are, you might like physics.
If you’ve had a back-row seat at a rock concert, and could still hear, you experienced physics at work! Physicists studying sound contribute to the design of concert halls and the amplication equipment. Knowing more about how things move and interact can be used to manage the flow of traffic and help cities avoid gridlock.
Lasers and radioactive elements are tools in the war on cancer and other diseases. Geophysicists are developing methods to give advance warning of earthquakes.
The work of physicists made possible the computer chips that are in your digital watch, CD player, electronic games, and hand-held calculator.
Physicist at work
The laboratory of the physicist extends from the edge of the universe to inside the nucleus of an atom. A physicist may work in a laboratory designing materials for the computer chips of tomorrow, or smashing atomic particles against one another in a quest to understand how our universe began. Physicists have orbited the Earth as astronauts, and plumbed the oceans’ depths. Individuals who have studied physics seek to make instruments that diagnose and cure disease; to develop safer and cleaner fuels for our cars and homes; to harness the power of the sea; to calculate the movement of arctic glaciers; and to create smaller, faster electronic components and integrated circuits.
Research physicists work in industry and government, in laboratories and hospitals, and on university campuses. Some physicists serve in the military, teach in high schools and colleges, design science museum exhibits, write books and news articles about science, give advice to federal, state, local, and foreign governments, run businesses, even become artists. Students not interested in pursuing a science career can still benefit from courses in physics. The study of physics helps you acquire very special problem-solving skills and teaches you to better observe and understand the world. We all employ physical concepts in everyday life.
Pole vaulters and drummers aren’t research physicists, but they make use of physical concepts such as elasticity, momentum, conservation of energy, vibration, reverberation, and reflection to hone their skills.
Will I need further education?
A course in physics can be the beginning of a career in science or an important building block for another profession. The course will give you a powerful and beautiful way to look at and understand the world around you.
If you like mathematics and science, a physics career offers many opportunities. You should take algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus (if it’s available) in high school. When you get to college, you’ll take more mathematics. Studying mathematics will help you in physics-and physics will help you understand and begin to appreciate many applications of mathematical concepts.
Other fields of science overlap physics. Many parts of biology, chemistry, geology, and engineering use physics.
If you have taken both biology and chemistry, you may have used physics. In college, if you decide to major in physics, you’ll take more science but concentrate in physics. After you have taken general physics with laboratory work, you will study some of the fields within physics such as classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, relativity, astrophysics, optics and geophysics.
Graduate students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees concentrate fully on physics. The master’s program usually takes two years and may require a research project. An additional two to four years may be needed to earn a Ph.D. One of the most important parts of the Ph.D. program is a piece of original research (either theoretical or experimental conducted with the guidance of a faculty advisor. You will write up the results for your thesis and perhaps publish it in a scientific journal.
As in other fields, computers are important tools for physicists. Computer programming classes will teach you the skills necessary for the modeling and analysis that are important in physics. But don’t plan on spending all your time in the lab or in front of a computer screen! You’ll need speaking and writing skills to communicate your discoveries, which means that English and composition are required. Scientists need to be able to write clear, concise reports about their research. The editors and reviewers at scientific journals won’t re-write your paper, and publishing your work may be very important to your career as a scientist.
You will also need to speak before different audiences: you may present a lecture on your research at professional meetings of physicists, explain your research to non-scientists, and even answer questions from reporters for newspapers and magazines. If you decide to teach, being able to explain technical material in understandable language is particularly important. Science is international. The study of foreign languages will help when you’re invited to attend an international meeting, accept a fellowship for study and research in a foreign country, or when the latest research paper in your field hasn’t been translated in English.
If you become a scientist, you can contribute not only through your research, but also by helping others to understand how scientific research is important to them.
Fields where physics is vital:
Electronic, Biomedical, Mechanical, Computer, Civil, Chemical, Environmental, Aeronautical and Instrumentation.
Law, Administration, Business, Journalism, Museums, Sports, Accounting, Marketing, Art, Science Communication.
Industry, Government, Military
Noise control, Pollution control, Conservation, Radiation protection, Environmental monitoring.
Technical books, Journals, Software.
Telecommunications, Television, Image analysis, Video recording, Photography, Laser Technology.
Radiation Oncology, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Radiation Protection, Nuclear Medicine, Diagnostic Instrumentation.
Graphics/Software Design, Peripherals Modelling, Artificial Intelligence, Data Processing, Programming, Computer Games.
Construction, Food, Chemical, Aerospace, Engineering, Agriculture, Consumer Products, Energy, Fuel, Metallurgical, Semiconductors, Textile & Clothing, Transportation, Computers, Electrical, Laser Technology, Materials.
Colleges, Universities, Technical Schools, Elementary and Middle Schools.
Universities, Technical Schools, National Laboratories, Industrial and Private Laboratories.
Space and Earth Sciences
Astronomy, Space Technology, Geophysics, Geology, Atmospheric Sciences, Energy & Resources, Ocean Sciences.