Physics uncovers the secrets of the world around us and addresses some of the biggest challenges facing society today. How can we design buildings that make our cities healthier and more sustainable? Digital technology is in our pockets and built into our homes but how does it actually work? How can we use physics to better understand the environment around us?
Explore physics - uncover the answers to these questions and more in the following sections:
- Technology in our lives
- Understanding our environment
- Sustainable building design
- Physics stepping stones
Technology in our lives
Technology is all around us and is a fundamental part of our daily lives. But what’s the physics behind the innovations like touch screens and wireless technology that so many of us rely on?
If you use wireless headphones to listen to music, make your mobile phone 'hands-free' in the car or play a games console from across the room, you are probably using Bluetooth technology. But how can engineers and designers get these different devices to 'talk' to each other? And what does this have to do with a king that lived a thousand 1000 years ago?
If you’ve ever watched a toddler using a tablet and then attempted to 'zoom in' on a picture in a book, you’ll have noticed how quickly touch screens have become part of our everyday lives. But how do touchscreens work?
Once the preserve of science-fiction films, we now live in an age where you can control a computer using gestures alone. But how can a computer 'see' where you are and what you’re doing? And how does it then convert that movement into a response? How can we look deeper and use this sort of technology for healthcare, sports and the arts?
How can we use just three colours (red, green and blue) to make the other colours of the rainbow and every colour in between? How can screens trick your eyes into seeing colours that aren’t there?
Understanding our environment
How can we use physics to help understand our surroundings? Find out what exciting physics is around you every day and how the IOP’s new home is contributing to physics research.
The boundary layer
What is happening in the layer of the atmosphere closest to us? We feel the effects of the weather and air pollution every day but how can we better understand the environment around us? How does the environment within a city differ from the countryside and why is this important to understand?
Physicists have discovered many things that are invisible to us: radio waves, X-rays and radioactive decay. Up on the roof of the Institute of Physics building is a device for detecting another type of radiation that is invisible to the eye: cosmic rays. The detector was built by students from a local college.
There’s invisible radiation all around us. Until 1896, no-one knew it existed. But then Henri Becquerel discovered that rocks containing uranium produced rays that blackened photographic paper. A cloud chamber is a good way to show up the radiation which is present in our environment. This is called background radiation.
Sustainable building design
How can we use physics to make buildings more efficient? Find out about some of the behind-the-scenes technology that helps to make the IOP’s new home an energy-efficient, sustainable building.
In the past, if you wanted to see in the dark, you would have to set something on fire, use the inefficient, white-hot filament of an incandescent bulb or settle for the humming, unpleasant glow of a fluorescent tube. And then came LED lighting – what’s the physics behind these highly efficient and long-lasting light sources?
Before the IOP building was even built, physicists and engineers were thinking about making the building as efficient as possible. Choosing the right building materials and using thermal modelling allowed them to create the best building design to make it as beautiful, energy efficient and comfortable as possible.
When rain falls onto a city like London, the water runs off a range of hard surfaces like roofs and pavements and then runs down the drain. When rainfall is extremely heavy, the rainwater can overwhelm London’s Victorian sewer system and cause major problems to the river Thames and the wider environment. We can help this problem by slowing down the journey of the water by holding it on our roof rather than it washing away instantly from hard, impermeable surfaces.
First used to generate power for early spacecraft, solar panels are now found all over the world, powering communities without generating carbon emissions. How do solar panels convert sunlight into electricity? What do you need to keep in mind when designing a solar farm to make it as efficient as possible?
Ground source heat pump
To heat a building and make it suitable for people to live or work in usually means spending money on fuel which, depending on the fuel, emits carbon into the environment and contributes to climate change. But what if we could get free heating by looking underground?
Physics stepping stones
What are some of the biggest ideas in physics? Find out the stories behind the most significant discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the universe.
Why we replaced our view of the solid universe with uncertainties, split identities and bizarre behaviour. Quantum physicist Richard Feynman famously said: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. But even if this still holds true today, it has not stopped us using the quantum properties of matter in a host of technologies.
The standard model
On 4 July 2012, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider – the biggest machine in the world – announced they had discovered one of nature’s deepest secrets. Detecting the Higgs boson completed the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory describing all the known fundamental particles and how they interact. During the announcement, the audience broke out in wild applause. One of the scientists who first proposed the Higgs particle even shed a tear of joy. Why were they so pleased?
When Albert Einstein was born in 1879, Isaac Newton’s idea of how gravity works had been around for nearly 200 years. It explained everything to do with gravity’s pull, from how, when dropped, a cannonball and an egg will hit the ground at the same time, to why we don’t float off into space. But Einstein changed our ideas about space, time and gravity forever.
If you take a piece of paper and cut it in half, and continue to cut it smaller and smaller, what are you left with? This is a similar thought experiment to that which Greek philosopher Democritus pondered in around 400 BCE. Democritus concluded that if you kept on cutting, everything must be made of tiny eternal particles. He called them atomos, meaning indivisibles. It took until the 19th century for Democritus to be proved right, with one important tweak in the 20th century. Atoms do exist but they are certainly not indivisible.
The phone in your pocket or the light in your bedroom. The electric cars on the road or the biggest machine in the world, the Large Hadron Collider. If you ask how they work, and keep asking ‘why’ questions like a toddler, you will always end up at Maxwell’s equations.
The question 'are we alone?' excites anyone with even a passing interest in our place in the universe. If we are alone, it makes us unique and precious. If we’re not, the idea of seeking out new life and new civilisations moves from the realm of science fiction to a tantalising possibility.
The big bang
Most physicists believe the universe was born in a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. In it, the energy making up everything in the cosmos we see today was squeezed inside an inconceivably small space – far tinier than a grain of sand, or even an atom. Then, this unimaginably hot and dense cauldron – for whatever reason – ballooned at a terrifying rate.
Though the term nanotechnology was first uttered in 1974 by Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi, societies had unwittingly been using nanotechnology for centuries. Find out why thinning sheets to the width of an atom can turn them into supermaterials.
It may not be the most familiar branch of science to everyone, but crystallography is one of the most important techniques in helping to understand the world around us. Crystallographers can work out the atomic structure of almost anything. And they use this knowledge to answer why things behave the way they do.
Our fascination with light starts at an early age. Some of the first questions kids ask their parents are about light. What are rainbows? Why is the sky blue? What are shadows? What kind of light is a laser and what makes it so powerful?
Soft matter physics
Boiling a kettle is a good demonstration of the phases of matter we are all familiar with from school. The kettle is solid. The water is liquid. And as the temperature rises, some of this water turns to gas billowing from the spout. But is your skin a solid? Skin’s not hard like a kettle. And luckily it doesn’t flow like water. It’s something in between, something squidgy. Physicists refer to it as soft matter.