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The History of Physics

Since antiquity, people have tried to understand the behavior of matter: why unsupported objects drop to the ground, why different materials have different properties, and so forth. Also a mystery was the character of the universe, such as the form of the Earth and the behavior of celestial objects such as the Sun and the Moon. Several theories were proposed, most of which were wrong. These theories were largely couched in philosophical terms, and never verified by systematic experimental testing as is popular today. There were exceptions and there are anachronisms: for example, the Greek thinker Archimedes derived many correct quantitative descriptions of mechanics and hydrostatics. 

The works of Ptolemy (Astronomy) and Aristotle (Physics) were also found to not always match everyday observations. An example of this is an arrow flying through the air after leaving a bow contradicts with Aristotle's assertion that the natural state of all objects is at rest.

The Scientific Revolution and Isaac Newton
The willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers resulted in a period of major scientific advancements, now known as the Scientific Revolution. Its origins can be found in the European re-discovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This period culminated with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by Isaac Newton (dates disputed).

The Scientific Revolution is held by most historians (e.g., Howard Margolis) to have begun in 1543, when there was brought to the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus the first printed copy of the book De Revolutionibus he had written about a dozen years earlier. The thesis of this book is that the Earth moves around the Sun. Other significant scientific advances were made during this time by Galileo Galilei, Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Kepler, and Blaise Pascal.

During the early 17th century, Galileo pioneered the use of experimentation to validate physical theories, which is the key idea in the scientific method. Galileo formulated and successfully tested several results in dynamics, in particular the Law of Inertia. In 1687, Newton published the Principia Mathematica, detailing two comprehensive and successful physical theories: Newton's laws of motion, from which arise classical mechanics; and Newton's Law of Gravitation, which describes the fundamental force of gravity. Both theories agreed well with experiment. The Principia also included several theories in fluid dynamics. Classical mechanics was exhaustively extended by Lagrange, Hamilton, and others, who produced new formulations, principles, and results. The Law of Gravitation initiated the field of astrophysics, which describes astronomical phenomena using physical theories.

After Newton defined classical mechanics, the next great field of inquiry within physics was the nature of electricity. Observations in the 17th and 18th century by scientists such as Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, and Benjamin Franklin created a foundation for later work. These observations also established our basic understanding of electrical charge and current.

James Clerk Maxwell
In 1821, Michael Faraday integrated the study of magnetism with the study of electricity. This was done by demonstrating that a moving magnet induced an electric current in a conductor. Faraday also formulated a physical conception of (what are now called) electromagnetic fields. James Clerk Maxwell built upon this conception, in 1864, with an interlinked set of 20 equations that explained the interactions between electric and magnetic field. These 20 equations were later reduced, using vector calculus, to a set of four equations.

Albert Einstein
In addition to other electromagnetic phenomena, Maxwell's equations also can be used to describe light. Confirmation of this observation was made with the 1888 discovery of radio by Heinrich Hertz and in 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen detected X rays. The ability to describe light in electromagnetic terms helped serve as a springboard for Albert Einstein's publication of his theory of special relativity. This theory combined classical mechanics with Maxwell's equations. The theory of special relativity unifies space and time into a single entity, spacetime. Relativity prescribes a different transformation between reference frames than classical mechanics; this necessitated the development of relativistic mechanics as a replacement for classical mechanics. In the regime of low (relative) velocities, the two theories agree. Einstein built further on the special theory by including gravity into his calculations, and published his theory of general relativity in 1915.

One part of the theory of general relativity is Einstein's field equation. This describes how the mass-energy tensor creates a curvature in spacetime, and when combined with the geodesic equation forms the basis of general relativity. Further work on Einstein's field equation produced results which predicted the Big Bang2,3 black holes, and the expanding universe. Einstein believed in a static universe and attempted to fix his equation to allow for this, but by 1927, the expanding universe was sought for by astronomers, and in 1929 evidence was found by Edwin Hubble.

From the 18th century onwards, thermodynamics was developed by Boyle, Young, and many others. In 1733, Bernoulli used statistical arguments with classical mechanics to derive thermodynamic results, initiating the field of statistical mechanics. In 1798, Thompson demonstrated the conversion of mechanical work into heat, and in 1847 Joule stated the law of conservation of energy, in the form of heat as well as mechanical energy.

In 1895, Roentgen discovered X-rays, which turned out to be high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and further studied by Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and others. This initiated the field of nuclear physics.

In 1897, Thomson discovered the electron, the elementary particle which carries electrical current in circuits. In 1904, he proposed the first model of the atom, known as the plum pudding model. (The existence of the atom had been proposed in 1808 by Dalton.)

Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity in 1896. The next year Joseph J. Thomson discovered the electron. These discoveries revealed that the assumption of many physicists that atoms were the basic unit of matter was flawed, and prompted further study into the structure of atoms.

In 1900, Max Planck published his explanation of blackbody radiation. This equation assumed that radiators are quantized in nature, which proved to be the opening argument in the edifice that would become quantum mechanics.

The Chemical Behavior of Matter
During the 1920s Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born were able to formulate a consistent picture of the chemical behavior of matter, a complete theory of the electronic structure of the atom, as a byproduct of the quantum theory. Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Richard Feynman were able to explain the Lamb shift using a quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics by the 1940s. In 1959, Feynman presented the hypothesis that it is possible to manipulate matter at the level of atoms, starting the field of nanotechnology.

In 1911, Rutherford deduced from scattering experiments the existence of a compact atomic nucleus, with positively charged constituents dubbed protons. Neutrons, the neutral nuclear constituents, were discovered in 1932 by Chadwick.

The equivalence of mass and energy (Einstein, 1905) was spectacularly demonstrated during World War II, as research was conducted by each side into nuclear physics, for the purpose of creating a nuclear bomb. The German effort, led by Heisenberg, did not succeed, but the Allied Manhattan Project reached its goal. In America, a team led by Fermi achieved the first man-made nuclear chain reaction in 1942, and in 1945 the world's first nuclear explosive was detonated at Trinity site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Quantum Mechanics
Beginning in 1900, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, and others developed quantum theories to explain various anomalous experimental results by introducing discrete energy levels. In 1925, Heisenberg and 1926, Schrödinger and Dirac formulated quantum mechanics, which explained the preceding quantum theories. In quantum mechanics, the outcomes of physical measurements are inherently probabilistic; the theory describes the calculation of these probabilities. It successfully describes the behavior of matter at small distance scales.

Quantum mechanics also provided the theoretical tools for condensed matter physics, which studies the physical behavior of solids and liquids, including phenomena such as crystal structures, semiconductivity, and superconductivity. The pioneers of condensed matter physics include Bloch, who created a quantum mechanical description of the behavior of electrons in crystal structures in 1928.

Quantum field theory was formulated in order to extend quantum mechanics to be consistent with special relativity. It achieved its modern form in the late 1940s with work by Feynman, Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Dyson. They formulated the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes the electromagnetic interaction. Quantum field theory provided the framework for modern particle physics, which studies fundamental forces and elementary particles. C. N. Yang and T. D. Lee, in the 1950s, discovered an unexpected asymmetry in the decay of a subatomic particle4. In 1954, Yang and Mills developed a class of gauge theories5,6 which provided the framework for the Standard Model. The Standard Model, which was completed in the 1970s, successfully describes almost all elementary particles observed to date.

The two themes of the 20th century, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are not currently consistent with each other. General relativity describes the universe on the scale of planets and solar systems while quantum mechanics operates on sub-atomic scales. This challenge is being attacked by string theory, which treats spacetime as a manifold, not of points, but of one-dimensional objects, strings. Strings have properties like a common string (e.g., tension and vibration). The theories yield promising, but not yet testable results. The search for experimental verification of string theory is in progress.

The United Nations have declared the year 2005 as the World Year of Physics.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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