Chapter 1: Elementary physics – Introduction

Definitions and laws

“One of the noblest desire of the man is to know the laws ruling the Universe, and those who contributed to enlighten some of the mysteries were always admired by their peers; they appear as privileged, wearing on them the divine light, a through centuries the generations gaze upon their indelible work and rank them first amongst the glories of the humanity.”

From Achille Cazin (Hachette, 1881).

Physics can be defined as a science that studies the general properties of matter, space, and time, and establishes laws that describe natural phenomena. We will point out the word law first, and ask ourselves if we can clearly, and without ambiguity, define all the objects we are discussing, i.e. space, time and matter. Their definitions are (Oxford dictionaries)

  • Space: A continuous area or expanse which is free, available, or unoccupied.
  • Matter: Physical substance in general, as distinct from mind and spirit; (in physics) that which occupies space and possesses rest mass, especially as distinct from energy.
  • Time: The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.

It is not what we can call clearly defined terms and it doesn’t indicate any of the relations that may exist between them. If we go back in time, Isaac Newton gave its definitions (1687):

  • The absolute space, which is without any relation with anything from the surroundings, is always unchanging and immobile. The relative space is any measure or mobile dimension of this space, which is defined with regards to its position with regards to objects that we consider as the immobile space…
  • The quantity of matter is the measure that we obtain from its density and its volume…
  • The absolute time, true and mathematic, is without relation to anything from the surroundings, and by its nature flows uniformly. The relative time, is any measure, accurate or not, of the duration of an event, that we use in place of the true time. I.e. the hour, day, month,…

It is difficult to avoid cross references and circular definitions. We will abandon the idea to define everything and accept the fact that some notions can make sense without being explicit. Physics is seeking for the laws that rule the reciprocal actions between one object and its surrounding. Enouncing those laws is not an easy job, and we have seen many changes in the history, as the understanding of the scientists evolved. For instance, L. Wouters gives in a school book of 1916 the law for the dilatation of bodies due to heat as

“The first effect that heat produces on bodies is to increase their volume, to dilate them”

This law is based upon its hypothesis on the nature of heat:

“Based on the modern hypothesis on the nature of heat, it results from the vibratory movement of the smallest molecules of the ponderable matter, and is transmitted via a fluid called aether. Aether is a subtle, perfectly elastic, substance that fills the intermolecular spaces as well as the so-called interplanetary voids. Heat is, at the end, a particular state of movement.”

Today, it is obvious that this law is false, mostly because of the notion of aether it is based on. The law itself is true with some exceptions. So, shall we give no definition nor law? Obviously we will, but laws should results from the simple relations obtained from experimentations: if I modify one physical quantity of my experiment, then another physical quantity changes, at this effect is repeated consistently if I repeat the experiment.

To end this introduction, I will extend the citation of Achille Cazin (Hachette, 1881) I opened the introduction with.

“No matter the study on which we work, there are some general rules that one must follow to avoid falling in annoying confusions. …

In physics, we observe all the circumstances around a natural phenomenon; we measure all the available quantities; we seek relations between theses quantities, and these relations are called the law of the phenomenon. When the phenomenon is too complex, and it looks like it is impossible to state one unique law, we modify the phenomenon, we make an experiment. Some circumstances seeming ancillary, are made negligible, and we observe the dominating quantities. From this experiment we obtain an approximate law, and by extension we seek the influence of the neglected circumstances, in which way they alter the law. Doing that, we find the limit law towards which tends the observed law when the circumstances become more and more negligible. Such a law is then used as a fundamental principle, seen as the temporary expression of a physical truth, temporary because one more accurate observation or a new phenomenon can modify the conclusions admitted as truth until now.”