History of Physics

Physics is the science that deals with the physical properties and composition of matter and energy, and the physical processes and phenomena of a particular system.  Physics, to many, may seem difficult to understand or relate to, but evidence of the study of physics are all around us and impact our lives daily.

Photo: Jeff Greenberg/UIG

We see physics in action everywhere.  See-saws in playgrounds make use of levers and fulcrums.  The magnetic rules of attraction allow us to decorate our refrigerators with our favorite team logo or souvenir magnets.  Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion are at work in our morning commutes as we watch automobiles accelerate and move thanks to mechanical force.  Unfortunately, on many busy roads we also witness the definition of inertia (a property of matter remaining at rest)!!  And when you use your cellphone to call and report you will be late for work due to traffic, your mobile device is working thanks to the principle of electricity and the electromagnetic spectrum, undulating patterns of electricity and magnetism.

Engraving depicting an improved form of the see-saw in which seats always remained horizontal. Dated 19th century. Photo: World History Archive/UIG

While many historians claim the ancient Greeks likely originated the study of physics, the European Renaissance is generally accepted as the beginning of physics, spurred on when Newton, witnessing an apple falling from a tree, came up with his theory of gravity.  The era of modern physics is credited as beginning with the discoveries of X-ray’s, the electron and radioactivity between 1895 and 1905.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) English mathematician, astronomer and physicist. Differential calculus: gravitation: wave nature of light: reflecting telescope. Mezzotint

We owe so much to the pioneers of physics.  Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) studied bodies and objects in motion, leading to Newton’s Laws of Motion. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) discovered electromagnetic induction.  James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) also worked in the field of magnetism, as did Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923) whose work would lead to X-ray technology.

Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium.  J. J. Thomson (1856-1940) discovered the electron and Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) discovered the proton.  Max Planck (1858-1947) is credited with the birth of quantum mechanics which inspired Niels Bohr (1885-1962) in formulating his theory on atomic structure.

In 1916 Albert Einstein (1879-1955) published his general theory of relativity, a fundamental theory of the nature of space, time, and gravitation.  Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) helped develop the first nuclear reactor during his work on the Manhattan Project, as did his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967).UIG’s History of Science collection features these famous scientists as well as diagrams and illustrations of their theories and discoveries.





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