What is Physics?
We each exist but for a limited time and in that time explore only a fraction of the whole. The inquiring and imaginative human mind has responded to the mystery and awe of the universe in a number of ways. One kind of response from the earliest times has been to invoke God as the supreme creator and destroyer of the worlds.

The regular repetitions of the day and night, the annual cycle of seasons, the eclipses, the thunder and lightning, the tides, the volcanoes and earthquakes, the twinkling of stars at night and the occasional coming of the comets — these and many other natural phenomena have been explained by the idea that there is, in a distant world, a supernatural being who has within his grasp, the power to create and destroy.

Physicist Richard Feynman says, God was always invented to explain mystery. When you finally discover how something works, you're taking something away from God and in a way, you don't need him anymore, except to explain the other mysteries that haven't been figured out yet.

Over the course of time, human beings learned how to carefully observe the physical environment and look for meaningful patterns and relations in natural phenomena, if any. For instance, Newton observed the fall of an apple and almost instantly wondered, Does the moon also fall? Immediately after asking the question, the physicist makes an intelligent guess. What then follows is explained beautifully by Feynman in this one-minute video.

Some people now say, If physics is based on a method which allows a certain group of individuals — physicists — to make random guesses, is it reliable at all? But Feynman has, very clearly explained, that whether one is Einstein or Newton or Heisenberg or anybody else, the scientific method simply doesn't care.

At the end, after going through a crude and rigorous process of verification through observations and experiments, only the most correct guess or theory becomes widely acceptable and even then forever remains under scrutiny. Physicists simply do not stop looking. As observations improve in detail and precision, or experiments yield new results, our theories must account for them, if necessary, by introducing modifications.

Another thing — the knowledge and application of physics have given us a better color television, a smarter phone in our hands, connectivity through the internet, faster transport and improved navigation systems. Therefore using these many modern technologies and then denying physics or science for that matter, is like eating all the fruits of a tree and saying that the tree doesn't exist!

Although physics has a very nice structure to it, defining it has always been very difficult. There is no one right answer to the question, What is physics? In the beginning, the nature of physics was very similar to that of philosophy because physicists were mostly concerned with questions like, Where did the universe come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? Did the universe need a creator? and so on. Human beings throughout history have struggled with these and other fundamental questions of life and universe.

The science of physics separated itself from the deep philosophy, although gradually, and eventually became a rudimentary system dependent mainly on the observations of the physical environment. Archimedes for instance, born on the island of Sicily in 287 BC, was the first person to deduce the principle of buoyancy — that any object immersed in a fluid will experience an upward force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid — while bathing. Overjoyed by the discovery, he ran naked through the streets shouting the words, Eureka! Eureka!

Another example — In the early 17th century, when Johannes Kepler examined the extensive observational data on planetary motion collected by astronomer Tycho Brahe, the circular orbits as proposed by Copernicus had to be replaced by the elliptical orbits to fit the data better.

The two aforementioned examples demonstrate that physics is, fundamentally, an observational science. At this moment, allow us to reveal what Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrödinger had once said, about physics, The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.

After Kepler came Galileo, and physics became, for the first time, an experimental science. Galileo had once said, I have discovered by experiment some properties of physics which are worth knowing and which have not hitherto been either observed or demonstrated. Interestingly, Galileo was the first physicist to recognize clearly that the only way to further our understanding of the universe was to resort to experiment.

Galileo's observations through experiments were compiled into mathematical structures by English mathematician and physicist, Isaac Newton, and in this way, physics soon became known as a science relying heavily on the developments in the field of mathematics. Stephen Hawking in his book, The Grand Design, says, The handful of equations Newton created and the elaborate mathematical framework we have since derived from them, are still taught today, and employed whenever an architect designs a building, an engineer designs a car, or a physicist calculates how to aim a rocket meant to land on Mars.

Much later after Newton, in the early 20th century, Albert Einstein published his revolutionary theory of general relativity and took the world by storm. This new imaginative theory beautifully explained what Newton couldn't and made Einstein a household name. The success of general relativity led Einstein to say that, Physics is essentially an intuitive and concrete science. Mathematics is not more than a means for expressing the laws that govern phenomena.

The entirety of the twentieth century was then dedicated to the development of quantum mechanics and other related theories of life and universe. The nature of reality once again became a topic of debate — in the realm of infinitesimal atoms, chance has its play and the drama of existence is no longer predestined in character. On the contrary, in the macro world, there is order and predictability. Physics once again was concerned with the questions of philosophy. 

Classical theory vs Quantum theory

So what is physics? Is it an extension of philosophy? Is it an observational science? Is it an experimental science as suggested by Galileo? Is it the revelation or manifestation of the truth of mathematics? Is it an intuitive science as pointed out by Einstein? Or is it the strange and vague combination of all five?

Ultimately, we would like to settle with Physics is the study of nature because it is, the study of nature after all, isn't it!? Physics definitely is a fundamental science and a collective human endeavor to know the unknown and to use the gathered knowledge for the benefit of the whole of humankind. It is in one sentence, Beautiful, elaborate and extremely satisfying. Now the big question is: Can an ordinary person try to understand as well as enjoy physics? The answer, is provided by Feynman, again —

People have asked another question — why study physics? First of all, it is the very nature of the human beings to seek answers. We are a curious species. We want to know why the stars shine and twinkle, why the world is colorful and why there is something rather than nothing. This is our journey as we contemplate the universe we live in and therefore, we believe, at wonderphy6.comthat a basic understanding of physics will only do one, good.

Secondly, our world is run by the technologies that have come from the knowledge of physics. For instance, the transistor revolutionized the field of electronics, and paved the way for smaller and cheaper radios, calculators, computers and mobile phones, among other things, but again, how many of us know how it works or how many of us have even cared to know the name of its inventor? It is a shame that we tend to forget.

Physics was, is, and will remain the grandest of all human successes despite of the fact that it may, probably, never reach a conclusion. We are always learning and will proudly continue to learn.

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