What is science? What is physics?

April 19, 2014 by Joshua
in Nature

“Do you use your education?”

People ask me this question all the time when they hear I got a PhD in physics. I feel like they don’t understand physics or science, at least not like I do. I didn’t either, but I love it more now that I do.

What is physics?

Look at the world. Everywhere you look are patterns. The sun always rises and sets. The sky is blue anywhere you go. Of all the types of plants, they all have green leaves or something similar. What goes up comes down.

Science means seeing patterns in nature, figuring them out, and explaining them to others. We find beauty in symmetry and patterns. Symmetry comes in many forms beyond mirror images, like rhythms in time and space, circular symmetry, and so on. Whatever beauty you see in the patterns of a rainbow, flower, face, or song, you can usually find more, or refine what you see to the purest symmetry or rhythm underlying everything else.

Physics is finding that underlying symmetry and rhythm, finding patterns in nature. To me, it’s like finding the beauty of rainbows everywhere in everything, because it’s there if you know where to look and you have the curiosity to invest the time to look.

Since there’s so much more than anyone could find on their own, the human practice of science involves sharing results, which means practicing openness, honesty, integrity, and humility.

Engineering is doing something with scientists’ results, which I don’t like nearly as much, though those who want to make the patterns useful love it more.

Math is understanding the patterns of how you talk about patterns. Once you learn enough about nature, you realize everyday language doesn’t suffice to describe the patterns. Math evolved in part to express the patterns in nature. I’m glad some people love working with just the patterns. Personally, I prefer my patterns connect with nature, which science does, not just abstract.

To me physics is closer to art than anything else, but in physics you try not to include yourself in your results, which you want to be about only nature. You might say it has less art in it, but I think artists try to describe nature more than anything else. I suspect many of them wish they understood more physics, or would if they saw past the equations and technology to the nature underneath.

Chemistry, biology, astrophysics, and the other sciences seem to me applications of physics, although reading Darwin and evolutionary psychology changed that. By the stage your focus on nature reaches what we call life, whatever that means, the change seems qualitative, though that’s probably just lack of imagination on my part. I see how you can derive chemistry and most of biology from physics, but evolutionary psychology helps you derive emotions from evolution, and that’s a bigger leap from physics than my imagination can make, at least now.

In answer to that question above I get asked so often, yes, I like finding beauty in nature, so I use my education all the time.

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