What is Physics? Simple enough question, right? Perhaps but the answer might not be that straightforward. In my attempt to explain different concepts and phenomena in Physics (this is my 50th post), I’ve come to realise one thing which, incidentally, provides an answer to what several people have asked me about Physics; and that is: Physics is all about making sense of the natural world.

Anything and everything you can think of, related to the natural world, can ultimately be broken down to the very basic properties and principles of Physics. This approach is called reductionism. You take a complex system, such as planets orbiting stars or the ability of leaves to synthesise their food using basic nutrients and sunlight, and deconstruct the whole process into simple rules and conditions governing such complex systems. Ultimately, everything, no matter how complicated they are, can be reduced to a bunch of easily understood principles without so much as losing any sense of their complexity. You see, by reducing something down to its bare, elemental components, you don’t necessarily make it less elegant or less deserving of our awe and respect. On the contrary, by cutting through the different layers of the system, you gain a deeper and broader understanding of what the system is, how it works, why it should behave in a certain way, etc. If reductionism sounds too, let’s say, harsh a word to qualify this type of analysis then let’s call it something else altogether. If that’s what’s bothering you then let’s forget about the name and look at its meaning.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery © Joseph Wright

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery © Joseph Wright

What Physics allows you to do, thus, is look at the essence of things. It gives you a unique insight into how things are. It removes the shroud of doubt and uncertainty, of mis- and pre-conceptions, of superstitions and myths, and sheds new light onto what used to be a mystery. But, more importantly, it makes it such that we can better appreciate and marvel at the beauty of the Universe. Far from making things appear bland or meaningless, it adds colour, flavour and value to each and every speck of reality.

But there’s more to Physics than just reductionism. Physics also provides you with a set of tools that helps consolidate your understanding of the world. By trying to analyse the world in and around us we make use of the tools at our disposal. I use the word ‘tools’ in a broad sense. Our own senses and extension of these (please see Sense) along with our capacity to reason and to speak the most elegant of languages called Mathematics, all of that form part of the tools we can use to study nature. In fact, what we call Physics today used to be known as Natural Philosophy. This had to do with not just theorising about the universe but also carrying out experiments about the physical, natural world. The different Sciences, such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology, used to be more closely related to each other. I guess we’ve been taught to think differently about these various subjects but, truth be told, these are all different ways of looking at the same thing. These are all essentially trying to study natural phenomena. All biological systems have an underlying chemical mechanism that govern their state and behaviour. And supporting this whole Chemistry are the principles of Physics which, in turn, is held together by the robust framework of Mathematics. And so, depending on how we slice and dice through our study of the natural world, we might allocate more weight to the chemical or physical or biological view of the world. But, the point is, they are all part of the same area of study.

One might argue that we cannot explain everything with Physics. Fair enough but if by ‘everything’ you mean the Universe and all that belongs in it, then Physics (and maths) is the way to go in making sense of it all. Physics might not have all the answers (yet) but it certainly is the best we have in terms of understanding what’s going on. Even in terms of explaining so-called supernatural phenomena such as ‘ghosts’ and ‘angels’, Science can find simpler and more sensible answers to what others might provide. In any case, our best means to finding out the truth about the natural world is to use Science.

There are mysteries in Science that are still unresolved and it is true that with every answer that we find we also unleash torrents of new questions but what it all means is that the it is only a matter of time before we are able to tackle these questions. And even if we aren’t able to find all the answers then so what? At least, there is this enterprise called Science taking us to the very core of the truth. What other means are there to get so close to making sense of the natural world without falling prey to irrational and fuzzy explanations?

What is Physics? Well, to put it simply, it is your key to being that little bit more connected to the magnificence and glory and elegance of the Universe. Physics is Life…


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