Physics » The Nature of Physics » Physics: An Introduction

The Realm of Physics

By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:

  • Explain the difference between a principle and a law.
  • Explain the difference between a model and a theory.

Further Introduction of Physics

The physical universe is enormously complex in its detail. Every day, each of us observes a great variety of objects and phenomena. Over the centuries, the curiosity of the human race has led us collectively to explore and catalog a tremendous wealth of information. From the flight of birds to the colors of flowers, from lightning to gravity, from quarks to clusters of galaxies, from the flow of time to the mystery of the creation of the universe, we have asked questions and assembled huge arrays of facts.

In the face of all these details, we have discovered that a surprisingly small and unified set of physical laws can explain what we observe. As humans, we make generalizations and seek order. We have found that nature is remarkably cooperative—it exhibits the underlying order and simplicity we so value.


The laws of physics govern the flight formations of migratory birds such as Canada geese. Image Attribution: David Merrett

Studying Physics

It is the underlying order of nature that makes science in general, and physics in particular, so enjoyable to study. For example, what do a bag of chips and a car battery have in common? Both contain energy that can be converted to other forms. The law of conservation of energy (which says that energy can change form but is never lost) ties together such topics as food calories, batteries, heat, light, and watch springs. Understanding this law makes it easier to learn about the various forms energy takes and how they relate to one another. Apparently unrelated topics are connected through broadly applicable physical laws, permitting an understanding beyond just the memorization of lists of facts.

The unifying aspect of physical laws and the basic simplicity of nature form the underlying themes of these physics tutorials. In learning to apply these laws, you will, of course, study the most important topics in physics. More importantly, you will gain analytical abilities that will enable you to apply these laws far beyond the scope of what can be included in a single book. These analytical skills will help you to excel academically, and they will also help you to think critically in any professional career you choose to pursue.

We will first begin discussing the realm of physics (to define what physics is), some applications of physics (to illustrate its relevance to other disciplines), and more precisely what constitutes a physical law (to illuminate the importance of experimentation to theory).

Science and the Realm of Physics

Science consists of the theories and laws that are the general truths of nature as well as the body of knowledge they encompass. Scientists are continually trying to expand this body of knowledge and to perfect the expression of the laws that describe it. Physics is concerned with describing the interactions of energy, matter, space, and time, and it is especially interested in what fundamental mechanisms underlie every phenomenon. The concern for describing the basic phenomena in nature essentially defines the realm of physics.

Physics aims to describe the function of everything around us, from the movement of tiny charged particles to the motion of people, cars, and spaceships. In fact, almost everything around you can be described quite accurately by the laws of physics. Consider a smartphone (see image below).


The Apple “iPhone” is a common smartphone with a GPS function. Physics describes the way that electricity flows through the circuits of this device. Engineers use their knowledge of physics to construct an iPhone with features that consumers will enjoy. One specific feature of an iPhone is the GPS function. GPS uses physics equations to determine the driving time between two locations on a map. Image Attribution: @gletham GIS, Social, Mobile Tech Images

Physics describes how electricity interacts with the various circuits inside the device. This knowledge helps engineers select the appropriate materials and circuit layout when building the smart phone. Next, consider a GPS system. Physics describes the relationship between the speed of an object, the distance over which it travels, and the time it takes to travel that distance. When you use a GPS device in a vehicle, it utilizes these physics equations to determine the travel time from one location to another.

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