Areas of Physics

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Areas of physics

Physics is a rich and diverse field of science.  It has many unique areas as well as numerous areas of overlap.  If one looks at the physics department of a major university and considers the undergraduate and graduate course along with the research topics, on finds an amazing list of areas.  Two broad lists of topics are outlined below.  They are the divisions of the journal Physical Review, the most comprehensive journal in the Physics community, and a list of physical sciences provided by Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman.

Physical Review is divided up into five series, labeled A through E.  Physical Review A focuses on atomic, molecular, and optical physics.  This area focuses on what is going on inside atoms and molecules.  It also looks at how does light behaves in general and how does it interact with objects. 

Also covered in Physical Review A is the field of quantum mechanics.  Quantum mechanics is the most fundamental area of modern physics.  On a small scale, particles, waves, and energy behave in very unique ways.  This behavior can not be described by classical, readily observed physics. 

Physical Review B focuses on condensed matter physics.  The properties of atoms become vastly different as they come together in the massive number needed to make a solid, liquid, or gas.  These properties include heat conduction and electrical conduction.

Also covered in Physical Review B is the field of materials physics.  This is one applied field of physics that is critical to the advances in numerous engineering disciplines.  For example controlled contamination or doping is what makes various types of steels have different properties and makes semiconductors operate computers, solar cells, and lasers.

Physical Review C focuses on nuclear physics.  Nuclear physicists are constantly finding more about the details of nuclei and the particles that make them up.  Radioactive decay and half lives are just some of the properties studied in nuclear physics.

Physical Review D focuses on elementary particle physics, field theory, gravitation, and cosmology.  Experimental physicists have increased the ability to collide particles to explore more fundamental particles and increased the ability to detect particles like cosmic ray photons that may be found in nature.

Physical Review E focuses on liquids, plasmas, polymers, and soft matter.  Polymers are a broad area of science.  The physics of the polymers look at the properties of different structural variations and the impact on strength and insulating properties, for example.

Feynman’s List

Physics and Chemistry:  Often the physics of a substance has a great impact on the chemical behavior.  One common example is the different forms of carbon:  graphite, diamond, coal, and fullerenes.  This is also important in surface chemistry and catalytic behavior.

Physics and Biology:  Physics is involved in all levels of biology.  Chemicals move in and out of a cell membrane.  Blood is pumped throughout the body.  Muscles are able to control movement ranging from the twitch of a finger to hitting a baseball.

Physics and Astronomy:  Stars generate energy through nuclear fusion.  Solar systems rotate according to physical principles such as gravitational forces.  Stars are studied using radiation measurements for particles travelling many light years.

Physics and Geology:  Earthquakes are a reminder that the earth is full of surprises in physics.  Massive tectonic plates build and release pressure.  Rocks change structure due to heat and pressure.  Geological wonders like the Grand Canyon are formed by simple physical processes like erosion.

Physics and Psychology:  The brain parallels a computer in many ways.  They both have input, output, short term memory, long term memory, calculating ability, and the ability to do certain things automatically.  Just as physics is key to every aspect of the computer, so it is key in every aspect of psychology and brain function. 

These areas of physics are broad.  This list is just a starting point to explore deeper the broad and exciting field.


R.P. Feynamn, R. B. Leighton, and M. Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 1, Chapter 3 (Menlo Park California, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1963)

The Physical Review.  Published by the American Physical Society.

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