theoretical physics

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Theoretical physics

The description of natural phenomena in mathematical form. It is impossible to separate theoretical physics from experimental physics, since a complete understanding of nature can be obtained only by the application of both theory and experiment. There are two main purposes of theoretical physics: the discovery of the fundamental laws of nature and the derivation of conclusions from these fundamental laws.

Physicists aim to reduce the number of laws to a minimum to have as far as possible a unified theory. When the laws are known, it is possible from any given initial conditions of a physical system to derive the subsequent events in the system. Sometimes, especially in quantum theory, only the probability of various events can be predicted. See Determinism, Quantum mechanics

The conclusions to be derived from the fundamental laws of nature may be of several different types.

1. Conclusions may be derived in order to test a given theory, particularly a new theory. An example is the derivation of the spectrum of the hydrogen atom from quantum mechanics; the verification of the predictions by accurate measurements is a good test of quantum mechanics. On rather rare occasions an experiment has been found to contradict the predictions of an existing theory, and this has then led to the discovery of important new physical laws. An example is the Michelson-Morley experiment on the constancy of the velocity of light, an experiment which led to special relativity theory. See Atomic structure and spectra, Light, Relativity

2. Theory may be required for experiments designed to determine physical constants. Most fundamental physical constants cannot be accurately measured directly. Elaborate theories may be required to deduce the constant from indirect experiments. See Fundamental constants

3. Predictions of physical phenomena may be made in order to gain understanding of the structure of the physical world. In this category fall theories of the structure of the atom leading to an understanding of the periodic system of elements, or of the structure of the nucleus in which various models are tested (for example, shell model or collective model). In the same category fall applications of theoretical physics to other sciences, for example, to chemistry (theory of the chemical bond and of the rate of chemical reactions), astronomy (theory of planetary motion, internal constitution, and energy production of stars), or biology.

4. Engineering applications may be drawn from fundamental laws. All of engineering may be considered an application of physics, and much of it is an application of mathematical physics, such as elasticity theory, aerodynamics, electricity, and magnetism. The generation and propagation of radio waves of all frequencies are examples of application of theoretical physics to direct practice. See Aerodynamics, Electricity, Magnetism

Apart from the classification of the fields of theoretical physics according to purpose, a classification can also be made according to content. Here one may perhaps distinguish three classification principles: type of force, scale of physical phenomena, and type of phenomena. See Mathematical physics, Physics

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

theoretical physics

[‚thē·ə′red·ə·kəl ′fiz·iks]
The description of natural phenomena in mathematical form.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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