The Physics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained – Book Sample
Introduction of The Physics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
We humans have a heightened sense of our surroundings. We evolved this way to outmaneuver stronger and faster predators. To achieve this, we have had to predict the behavior of both the living and the inanimate world.
Knowledge gained from our experiences was passed down through generations via an ever-evolving system of language, and our cognitive prowess and ability to use tools took our species to the top of the food chain. We spread out of Africa from around 60,000 years ago, extending our abilities to survive in inhospitable locations through sheer ingenuity. Our ancestors developed techniques to allow them to grow plentiful food for their families, and settled into communities.
Experimental methods – The Physics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
Early societies drew meaning from unrelated events, saw patterns that did not exist, and spun mythologies. They also developed new tools and methods of working, which required advanced knowledge of the inner workings of the world—be it the seasons or the annual flooding of the Nile—in order to expand resources.
In some regions, there were periods of relative peace and abundance. In these civilized societies, some people were free to wonder about our place in the universe. First the Greeks, then the Romans tried to make sense of the world through patterns they observed in nature.
Thales of Miletus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others began to reject supernatural explanations and produce rational answers in the quest to create absolute knowledge—they began to experiment. At the fall of the Roman Empire, so many of these ideas were lost to the Western world, which fell into a dark age of religious wars, but they continued to flourish in the Arab world and Asia.
Scholars there continued to ask questions and conduct experiments. The language of mathematics was invented to document this newfound knowledge. Ibn al-Haytham and Ibn Sahl were just two of the Arab scholars who kept the flame of scientific knowledge alive in the 10th and 11th centuries, yet their discoveries, particularly in the fields of optics and astronomy, were ignored for centuries outside the Islamic world.
A new age of ideas
With global trade and exploration came the exchange of ideas. Merchants and mariners carried books, stories, and technological marvels from east to west. Ideas from this wealth of culture drew Europe out of the dark ages and into a new age of enlightenment known as the Renaissance.
A revolution of our world view began as ideas from ancient civilizations became updated or outmoded, replaced by new ideas of our place in the universe. A new generation of experimenters poked and prodded nature to extract her secrets. In Poland and Italy, Copernicus and Galileo challenged ideas that had been considered sacrosanct for two millennia—and they suffered harsh persecution as a result.
Then, in England in the 17th century, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion established the basis of classical physics, which was to reign supreme for more than two centuries. Understanding motion allowed us to build new tools— machines—able to harness energy in many forms to do work. Steam engines and water mills were two of the most important of these— they ushered in the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840).
The evolution of physics – The Physics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
In the 19th century, the results of experiments were tried and tested numerous times by a new international network of scientists.
They shared their findings through papers, explaining the patterns they observed in the language of mathematics. Others built models from which they attempted to explain these empirical equations of correlation. Models simplified the complexities of nature into digestible chunks, easily described by simple geometries and relationships.
These models made predictions about new behaviors in nature, which were tested by a new wave of pioneering experimentalists—if the predictions were proven true, the models were deemed laws which all of nature seemed to obey.
The relationship of heat and energy was explored by French physicist Sadi Carnot and others, founding the new science of thermodynamics. British physicist James Clerk Maxwell produced equations to describe the close relationship of electricity and magnetism—electromagnetism. By 1900, it seemed that there were laws to cover all the great phenomena of the physical world. Then, in the first decade of the 20th century, a series of discoveries sent shock waves through the scientific community, challenging former “truths” and giving birth to modern physics.
A German, Max Planck, uncovered the world of quantum physics. Then fellow countryman Albert Einstein revealed his theory of relativity. Others discovered the structure of the atom and uncovered the role of even smaller, subatomic particles. In so doing, they launched the study of particle physics. New discoveries weren’t confined to the microscopic—more advanced telescopes opened up the study of the universe. Within a few generations, humanity went from living at the center of the universe to residing on a speck of dust on the edge of one galaxy among billions.
Not only had we seen inside the heart of matter and released the energy within, we had charted the seas of space with light that had been traveling since soon after the Big Bang.
Physics has evolved over the years as a science, branching out and breaching new horizons as discoveries are made. Arguably, its main areas of concern now lie at the fringes of our physical world, at scales both larger than life and smaller than atoms. Modern physics has found applications in many other fields, including new technology, chemistry, biology, and astronomy.
This book presents the biggest ideas in physics, beginning with the everyday and ancient, then moving through classical physics into the tiny atomic world, and ending with the vast expanse of space. ■
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