What is Physics?

Only once we perceive these attributes and relationships can we make any study of them. Once we have measured these can we identify the nature of these attributes and relationships.

Only once we have measured them can we understand any causal relationships between entities and their actions.

We cannot grasp these important causal relationships until we have measured the attributes of entities and the various relationships between them.

It is only by studying such, that we can grasp such casual relationships. It is only by using mathematics that we can understand the attributes of physical entities and the relationships between them.

Without mathematics, physics would consist only of directly observable attributes of entities and the directly observable relationships between them. We would know that fire is hot, but we would be unable to know at what point water vaporizes.

Similarly, we would know that if we drop things that they fall. We would not know that objects fall at the same rate and we would be unable to form the concept of gravity pulling things down.

Without calculus, Newton would not have been able to formulate his laws of motion and we would know very little or nothing about mechanics.

Good old Newton. Much of physics is only possible because we have calculus to help tease out relationships.

If we were not able to apply mathematics, we would have no ability to measure the properties on the scale of atoms or molecules. We would, therefore, know almost nothing about the atomic world or chemistry.

In fact, we would be unable to measure the attributes of most things physics deals with. Nor would be be able to measure the relationships between many of these things.

Physics needs mathematics in order to measure attributes of things and the relationships between them. If we could not make these measurements, we would be largely unable to study matter and its mechanisms.

This is why physics is such a heavily mathematical subject. Because so many facts of physics must first be uncovered by using mathematics to identify attributes of things and the relationships between them.

But, is this where physics ends? Once we identify the laws of motion, should we just take them as a given and not attempt to explain them? Once we have stated that this is how gravity works, should we just leave it there?

No, of course not. Mathematics describes attributes and relationships. But it does not tell us the nature of the things we are describing and why they seem to work the way they do.

In physics, we want to understand the nature of things and the mechanisms of what we observe. We want to understand how electricity works, why the atom works the way it does, how gravity works and so on. By understanding the nature of the entities involved and how they interact.

Once we understand the entities involved and how they interact, we can explain what we observe. We can explain mechanisms and why the physical world works as it does.

But, how far can we go? Say we reduce the atom to, say, the actions of ropes. We show that everything in physics can be shown to be the result of intertwined ropes. Do we need to explain what the ropes are made of and why they work the way they are?

What if something else makes up the ropes? Well, what is that made out of? Are we trapped constantly explaining every new thing we find?

Intertwined ropes, a bit like this.

(We are not saying that this is necceasirly true. The Rope Hypothesis may well not be true. This is simply for illustrative purposes.)

No. There are physical entities which are the most fundamental physical entities that there are. Not everything is made out of more fundamental things.

At some point, there must be fundamental somethings from which makes up everything else. Or which simply exists as an independent form of matter.

In Hindu mythology, this World Turtle holds up the Earth in space. A Hindu was once asked what holds up this World Turtle. This person apparently retorted that it is turtles all the way down!

There is no such thing as physics all the way down. Eventually, we would reach a point where we have to stop trying to explain. We understand the most basic forms of existents there are and we cannot go any further down.

That is it, these are the most simplest things they are. They have a nature, they work this way, that is it. There is no explaining how or why, that is just how it is. We must accept it as an axiom.

Now, will we ever get to that point? I am not so sure. I am not sure how we would even know we had. It seems it would be difficult to show this. But, there is such a point, even if we do not reach it.

Physics is fundamentally, a study of matter. That is, of physical objects and how they interact. Since that is all there is for it to study, on the most fundamental level.

What else is there in physics to study? What in physics does not eventually reduce to a description of attributes of/actions of/interactions of/relationships between matter? That is, physical stuff.

So, in short, physics is the study of matter. Not concepts. And not of magic. Not of mathematical equations. Matter is in a sense, all that really matters in physics…


    1. Thanks. 🙂 Bad pun it may be, I think it pretty much sums things up. Math does matter, as the article explains, but ultimately it is all about matter.

  1. While I agree with your overall thesis, that physics is a study of physical things that exist and not a study of mathematics or abstract concepts, I do have an interesting issue to bring up that you touched upon — are fields physical in the sense of being composed of matter? I ask because as far as we know now, fields are not composed of physical things, though there are theories that effectively state that fields are caused or mitigated by photons. So, your defining statement about physics may be too narrow, in that physics is the study of the physical world or nature, and not the study of mathematics. In other words, you might be making the mistake of assuming the fields are made of some type of matter like electrons or protons when we do not have the evidence yet. We may be at the stage of fields where we were when we first began to study air, but before we discovered that air is composed of particles moving about very quickly, but we did not know that at one time and so it would not have been appropriate at that time to say that physics is the study of matter before we knew that air was a gas mixture and that gases are composed of particles. That is, the concept of “physics” must be broad enough to include every aspect of nature, but not presume at this time that everything is composed of particles.

    1. Fields are covered here:


      There I contend that fields are the descriptions of attributes of things and or their interactions. Which is entirely consistent with the definition of physics given in the first paragraph:

      “Physics is the study of the fundamental nature of the physical world. It studies the nature of the most fundamental of the physical things that make up existence and how they interact with one another.”

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