This is an exceptionally good answer to the question: “What do physicists wish the average person knew about physics?” The answer was written by Inna Vishik, Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of California, Davis.
- Physics makes predictive models about the natural world based on empirical observations (experiments), mathematics, and numerical simulations. These models are called ‘theories’, but this does not mean they are speculative; physics theories explain past behavior and predict future behavior. When a previously-validated theory fails to explain the behavior in a new physical system, it doesn’t mean the theory is suddenly ‘wrong’ altogether, it means that it is inapplicable in a certain regime. It is very exciting for physicists when these exceptions are found, and it is in these holes in our models that we propel our understanding of the physical world forward.
- The domain of physics is vast. Some physicists study the existing universe around us. Some study the smallest constituent particles and forces of matter in this universe. Some manipulate clusters of atoms, and some manipulate light. Some study crystalline solids and the myriad properties they can have when quadrillions of atoms and electrons are arranged in slightly different ways. Others study biological systems. This is not a full list of the many subfields in physics, but what they all have in common is they combine classical (including continuum) mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, general relativity, and electricity and magnetism in various configurations to explain the physical and engineered world around us.
- Research in physics and other fundamental sciences play three crucial roles in an advanced society; they cement our cultural legacy by exploring one aspect of the human condition (the universe we occupy), similar to the role of the arts; they educate a portion of the work force in solving difficult, open ended problems beyond the limits of prior human innovation; they provide the seeds for future technological developments, which is often realized decades in the future in an unpredictable manner (i.e. not amenable to quarterly earnings reports). At the time of their inception, electromagnetic waves (late 19th century), quantum mechanics (early 20th century) and lasers (mid 20th century) were viewed even by their progenitors as esoteric curiosities; now they permeate our life, technology, and medicine so deeply that no one would question their practical importance. In the modern physics research era, there are newer ideas that might have an equally important impact 50 years from now, but they will never be realized without continued investment in the public good known as fundamental science.
–Dr J Rogel-Salazar