Tips for Understanding Physics

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The word physics is ultimately derived from the Ancient Greek,  phusika, 'natural things'  from the root  phusis 'nature'.  It is the branch of science concerned with the properties and nature of matter and energy, the two things from which our world, our universe and we ourselves are made. Distinguished from chemistry and biology, the other natural sciences, it examines and tries to explain the phenomena we see, hear, taste, touch and smell as we go about our everyday lives.

This is the first tip for understanding physics. We all experience the physical world, it's just that most of us just get on with our lives and don't stop to think about it. Physics is basically just thinking about why things happen the way they do. If we stop to think about what we see we would realise that we already know a lot about basic physics.  We see the effects of gravity everyday. We experience the effects of the Laws of Motion whenever we drive our cars, when we brake or accelerate, or drive round a bend. We know from experience that heat travels from hot to cold, and that energy is needed to boil water for instance. We are aware of the effects of the Laws of Thermodynamics,even if we have never heard of them. We hear sound, we see the effects of electricity, and in our use of mobile phones we are reaping the benefits of discoveries in quantum physics.The point is physics is not an esoteric subject which can only be grasped after years of study. We all begin with a basic knowledge, we just don't realise it.

Once you decide to study physics on a higher level one thing becomes plain, that a decent grasp of mathematics is required. The English Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon (c. 1214- 1292) is credited with saying  'mathematics is the door and key to the sciences'. This is probably truer today than at any time in history. Consider mathematics to be a tool that you use to help you understand physics and become proficient in the use of that tool. Learn to read an equation. Understand what physical quantities the symbols in the equation are representing, and what  the relationship between these physical quantities is.  The most famous equation in physics, Einstein's  E = mc² is merely expressing a relationship between energy  E,  mass m, and the speed of light c. The equation itself is relatively simple, the implications profound. So work at your mathematics.

Physicists make extensive use of diagrams, graphs and mathematical models. Drawings can be a great aid to understanding alongside the taking of notes, so try to do this as well. One of the best ways to understand a particular concept is to try and explain it to a fellow student. Make sure you work through any questions or problems given as part of a physics course. Doing this will reinforce your understanding and highlight any areas which need further work.

As you progress, some concepts  will be grasped easier than others. Realise that this is perfectly natural. Do not be too hard on yourself, but make sure you have tried to understand. As in all walks of life hard work and dedication pays off. Realise that in your study of physics that you are joining a long line of human beings who have tried to explain the natural world throughout history. Physics is a social subject, the idea of the lone genius working away in his laboratory is just wrong. Talk to your teachers and fellow students and be prepared  to argue a point. A good physicist will think for himself, take in the theories and concepts of an earlier age, an try and improve or build on them.

 Look to the history of physics. Here you will see how ideas have evolved over the centuries and this will help your thinking. You will see how even a genius like Newton could observe the effects of gravity, and describe those gravitational forces mathematically, but could not explain how gravity worked. He stated in his great work the Principia that he would 'form no hypotheses' as to the causes of gravity. Einstein would consider gravity to be due to the localised curvature of space-time and no doubt new ideas are be hypothesized today. Consider yourself to be part of this great culture and enjoy your part in it. This is the final tip. Always enjoy what you are doing and be enthusiastic about your subject. Look for the physics all around you and don't just switch off after a lesson or lecture.

More about this author: Norman Green

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