What is Theoretical Physics?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2017
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Theoretical physics is a branch of the field of physics which is dedicated to coming up with mathematical explanations for natural events. Many disciplines within physics fall under the umbrella of theoretical physics because they involve the design of formulas which may not be able to be empirically tested. Researchers in this field are pondering some very complex problems and questions, such as how the universe developed.

Physics is an intriguing branch of the sciences because it often involves the development of theories which cannot be tested with an experimental model, violating one of the fundamental precepts of empirical science. Scientific researchers usually want to develop a theory, design an experiment which will test that theory, perform the experiment, and publish results. In theoretical physics, researchers develop theories, but they are unable to test them. This separates theoretical physics from experimental physics, in which researchers design and perform experiments to explore their theories.

Since theoretical physics cannot be supported with the use of experiments, researchers rely on other tools to determine whether or not their theories are accurate. The theory should be able to accurately predict or explain physical phenomena, for example, and it should be supported by known observations. Ideally, the theory should also be clean and neat, with some theoretical physics subscribing to the idea of Occam's Razor, believing that the simplest explanation is the best one. Theories should also withstand vigorous discussion and debate, with theoretical physicists constantly exchanging ideas and criticism to improve their field of the sciences.

Some theories in this field have been widely accepted and they are routinely taught in classrooms, used in physics research, and applied in industries all over the world. Ongoing research on these theories continues as scientists want to fully explore all aspects of theoretic physics. Other theories have been proposed, and seem plausible, but have not been fully supported, or require more research, and the newest theories are considered “fringe theories” which require much more exploration, discussion, and observation.

Sir Isaac Newton is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of theoretical physics, as is Albert Einstein. Both physicists distinguished themselves by making logical leaps which sometimes defied known information or observations and required a highly theoretical view of the world. Newton's work even involved a substantial expansion of the mathematical language of calculus so that he could express his theories. Theoretical physicists also famously engage in thought experiments, in which they explore their ideas in their minds, without the use of a lab.


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Post 4

I am taking an introduction to physics course right now and I have been disappointed that there is not more theoretical physics involved. I know that we have to learn the basics, but couldn't we get the basics of theoretical physics as well?

I have been fascinated with physics since I was a kid. I am now especially interested in the theoretical side because it is only theoretical physics that fully explains the nature of the universe and the reality that surrounds us. Philosophers can think about it endlessly, but it is physicists who can actually figure it out.

Post 3

I have a good friend that is a post doctoral fellow in theoretical physics. I am not very scientifically inclined myself and sometimes she will talk for minutes and I will not pick up a thing that she says.

But she loves what she does and has never wanted to study anything else so once she gets started I kind of just let her go for it. And maybe I'm picking up more than I realize. If I took intro to theoretical physics I could probably pull off a C minus.

Post 2

@popcorn - If you love science and theoretical physics I am sure you have been following the news about the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN. I am really excited to see what they learn about dark matter, and if they ever actually find the god particle the physics community has been chatting about for so long now.

Will the LHC teach us how the universe really formed? Will finding the Higgs Boson rewrite physics as we know it? Who knows? Still some very interesting stuff.

What always cracks me up though is those that think the LHC is going to make dangerous blackholes. I think too many people get worried easily about some of the things being done by CERN and really need to know the basics of theoretical physics before they start scaremongering. Those that are worried that a manmade blackhole will consume the Earth really need to chill out.

Post 1

I've always been interested in modern theoretical physics and have been trying to understand more of the basics of the main concepts. I can't say I am ever going to have any of the physics jobs out there, but it is nice to know a bit about what they're talking about in some of the science news stories I read.

One of the most interesting modern theoretical physics theories to me has been string theory which may just be what we need to get quantum mechanics and general relativity to work on the same page. This would mean we'd really begin to know just how to describe how nature works.

Does anyone have any other theories from theoretical physics that they find intriguing?

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