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What is physics about?

Physics seeks to understand the basics

Physics seeks to understand nature at its most fundamental level. Physicists – and students studying physics – attempt to discover and apply the general laws that govern force and motion, matter and energy, and space and time.

Physics has a broad canvas

Physics seeks to discover the inner workings of nature in systems ranging in size from the smallest elementary particles such as quarks, protons, and neutrons to superclusters of galaxies.

Physics is both applied and theoretical

Physics explains the science that underlies the behaviour of everyday things such as cars and bridges as well as abstract things such as the curvature of space-time near a black hole.

Interpreting the Nature of Science aims in a physics context

Understanding about science

Students learn about how knowledge of physics has developed, how physics ideas have evolved over time, and how the work of physicists interacts with society. For example:

  • Millikan’s selective use of data to support his explanation and calculations in his 'Oil drop experiment'.
  • The use of models involving particles, waves, and fields to describe electricity, sound and light.
  • Werner von Braun and his role in rocket development, both during wartime and with NASA.
  • Kevin Warwick and his contribution to developments in cybernetics.

Investigating in science

Students investigate physical phenomena and develop their understanding of the investigative process. For example, they:

  • deduce trends and relationships (such as the trend between the time taken for a ball to roll down a sloping surface and the roughness of its surface, the relationship between generated voltage and intensity of illumination on a photovoltaic cell)
  • evaluate models (such as models of electric circuits or radioactive decay)
  • examine assumptions (such as suitability of kinematics equations, when to ignore friction, or sufficiency of data) when determining a trend.

Communicating in science

Students learn to communicate using the language of physics. For example, they:

  • use appropriate and effective scientific drawings, animations, images, tables, graphs, or explanatory diagrams to help make information easier to understand or communicate physics ideas
  • describe and explain phenomena, principles, and relationships using appropriate physics vocabulary
  • select and manipulate equations and substitute numerical values when solving numerical problems
  • express relationships established from analysis of data in words or equations
  • read and evaluate physics articles for meaning.

Participating and contributing

Students use their understanding of physics principles and processes to make informed decisions about socio-scientific issues. For example, they:

  • suggest ways in which the health claims made for copper or magnetic bracelets could be investigated
  • identify and discuss the positive and negative aspects of electronic surveillance (for example the use of mobile phones, GPS devices, wire tapping, ankle bracelets)
  • debate whether nuclear powered electricity generation is appropriate or desirable in New Zealand.

Last updated July 18, 2012