Nature of physics
Physics is an experimental science. Physicists observe the phenomena of nature and try to find patterns that relate these phenomena. These patterns are called physical theories or, when they are very well established and widely used, physical laws or principles.
CAUTION The meaning of “theory” A theory is not just a random thought or an unproven concept. Rather, a theory is an explanation of natural phenomena based on observation and accepted fundamental principles. An example is the well-established theory of biological evolution, which is the result of extensive research and observation by generations of biologists.
To develop a physical theory, a physicist has to learn to ask appropriate questions, design experiments to try to answer the questions, and draw appropriate conclusions from the results. Figure 1.1 shows two important facilities used for physics experiments.
Legend has it that Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) dropped light and heavy objects from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Fig. 1.1a) to find out whether their rates of fall were different. From examining the results of his experiments (which were actually much more sophisticated than in the legend), he made the inductive leap to the principle, or theory, that the acceleration of a falling object is independent of its weight.
The development of physical theories such as Galileo’s often takes an indirect path, with blind alleys, wrong guesses, and the discarding of unsuccessful theories in favor of more promising ones. Physics is not simply a collection of facts and principles; it is also the process by which we arrive at general principles that describe how the physical universe behaves.
No theory is ever regarded as the final or ultimate truth. The possibility always exists that new observations will require that a theory be revised or discarded. It is in the nature of physical theory that we can disprove a theory by finding behavior that is inconsistent with it, but we can never prove that a theory is always correct.
Getting back to Galileo, suppose we drop a feather and a cannonball. They certainly do not fall at the same rate. This does not mean that Galileo was wrong; it means that his theory was incomplete. If we drop the feather and the cannonball in a vacuum to eliminate the effects of the air, then they do fall at the same rate. Galileo’s theory has a range of validity: It applies only to objects for whichthe force exerted by the air (due to air resistance and buoyancy) is much less than the weight. Objects like feathers or parachutes are clearly outside this range.
Frequently Asked Questions
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