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Physics Overview - Preparation - Specialty Areas - Day In The Life - Earnings - Employment - Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations - Profiles of Physicists - Overview PowerPoint - Podcast

Specialty Areas
- Acoustics
- Astronomy
- Astrophysics
- Atmospheric Physics
- Biophysics
- Chemical Physics
- Cryogenics
- Crystallography
- Electromagnetism
- Energy
- Engineering
- Environmental Physics
- Fluid Mechanics
- Geophysics
- Materials Science
- Medical Physics
- Metallurgy
- Molecular Physics
- Nuclear Physics
- Oceanography
- Optical Physics
- Particle Physics
- Plasma Physics
- Rheology
- Solid State Physics
- Space Physics
- Thermal Physics
- Vacuum Physics

Acoustics is an interdisciplinary science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound, having application in the life sciences, the earth sciences, engineering, and the arts. Acoustics is the physics of sound. The study of the science is applied to noise control problems stemming from vehicle tires, home appliances, office equipment, and power tools; the design of architectural structures such as concert halls, lecture halls, and radio and television stations to optimize sound; the detection and identification of hidden objects (e.g., objects submerged in the ocean); the nondestructive evaluation of the performance and safety of critical components of equipment, such as jet engines, by analyzing acoustic emissions of the components under stress during use of the equipment; and the improvement of communication.

   Related Associations:
       Acoustical Society of America 

Astronomy is the science of the celestial bodies and of their location, magnitude, motions, and constitution. The application of physics to astronomy for studying the apparent and real motions of the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars is among the earliest contributions to the scientific method. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences. Astronomers of early civilizations performed methodical observations of the night sky, and astronomical artifacts have been found from much earlier periods. However, the invention of the telescope was required before astronomy was able to develop into a modern science. Astronomers use the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the fundamental nature of the universe and its components, including the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. As such, astronomy is sometimes considered a subfield of physics. They also apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications and to develop the instrumentation and techniques used to observe and collect astronomical data.

   Related Associations:
       American Astronomical Society

Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties (luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition) of celestial objects such as stars, galaxies, and the interstellar medium, as well as their interactions. The study of cosmology is theoretical astrophysics at the largest scales where Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity plays a major role. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists typically apply many disciplines of physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

   Related Associations:
       American Astronomical Society

Atmospheric Physics
Atmospheric physics is the application of physics to the study of the atmosphere. Atmospheric physicists attempt to model Earth's atmosphere and the atmospheres of the other planets using fluid flow equations, chemical models, radiation balancing, and energy transfer processes in the atmosphere (as well as how these tie in to other systems such as the oceans). In order to model weather systems, atmospheric physicists employ elements of scattering theory, wave propagation models, cloud physics, statistical mechanics and spatial statistics which are highly mathematical and related to physics. It has close links to meteorology and climatology and also covers the design and construction of instruments for studying the atmosphere and the interpretation of the data they provide, including remote sensing instruments. Divisions of the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) oversee research projects and weather modeling involving atmospheric physics. The US National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center also carries out studies of the high atmosphere.

   Related Associations:
       International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences

Biophysics is the application of physical concepts and techniques to the study of the principles that underlie the structures and functions of living systems; it is the study of the physical laws that create or affect biological molecules and processes. Biophysics encompasses several levels of biological organization, including the molecular level, the subcellular and cellular level, and the organ level. Molecular biophysics considers the structure of biological molecules such as enzymes, muscle proteins, and nucleic acids and how these molecules interact with various forms of energy. Study of biophysics at the subcellular and cellular level is concerned with how molecules are organized into special cell structures and how these structures perform their specialized functions. Biophysicists also study the physical principles that underlie the functioning of the ear, eye, and other body systems (e.g., the ear's response to variations in air pressure that cause sound and the transformation of energy received by nerve impulses from the eye into visual sensations such as color, sharpness, brightness, and shape). Biophysics research also has applications to medicine. For example, it provides explanation of the functional relationship of body parts and has potential impact on disease prevention through the study of the body's defense mechanisms involving proteins at the cell-membrane level.

   Related Associations:
       Biophysical Society

Chemical Physics
Chemical physics is a sub-discipline of physics that investigates physicochemical phenomena using techniques from atomic and molecular physics and condensed matter physics; it is the branch of physics that studies chemical processes from the point of view of physics. While at the interface of physics and chemistry, chemical physics is distinct from physical chemistry in that it focuses more on the characteristic elements and theories of physics. Meanwhile, physical chemistry studies the physical nature of chemistry. Nonetheless, the distinction between the two fields is vague, and workers often practice in each field during the course of their research. Chemical physicists commonly probe the structure and dynamics of ions, free radicals, polymers, clusters, and molecules. Areas of study include the quantum mechanical behavior of chemical reactions, the process of solvation, inter- and intra-molecular energy flow, and single entities such as quantum dots. Experimental chemical physicists use a variety of spectroscopic techniques to better understand hydrogen bonding, electron transfer, the formation and dissolution of chemical bonds, chemical reactions, and the formation of nanoparticles.

   Related Associations:
American Physical Society Division of Chemical Physics

Cryogenics (Low Temperature Physics) is the study of matter at temperatures much colder than those that occur naturally on Earth. Low temperature physicists are concerned with phenomena such as superfluidity and superconductivity, and Bose-Einstein Condensation. The field of cryogenics advanced during World War II when scientists found that metals frozen to low temperatures showed more resistance to wear. Cryogens, like liquid nitrogen, are used for specialty chilling and freezing applications. Some chemical reactions, like those used to produce the active ingredients for the popular statin drugs, must occur at low temperatures of approximately -100 C. The freezing of foods and biotechnology products, like vaccines, requires nitrogen in blast freezing or immersion freezing systems. Certain soft or elastic materials become hard and brittle at very low temperatures, which makes cryogenic milling (grinding) an option for some materials that cannot easily be milled at higher temperatures. Another use of cryogenics is cryogenic fuels. Cryogenic fuels, mainly oxygen and hydrogen, have been used as rocket fuels. For example, NASA's workhorse space shuttle uses cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen fuels as its primary means of getting into orbit.

   Related Associations:
Cryogenic Society of America

Crystallography is the subdivision of chemical physics that deals with the study of crystals which compose solids and are made up of rigid three-dimensional latticework of molecules that give rise to special properties such as shape, hardness, electrical conductivity, and photoconductivity. Before the development of X-ray diffraction crystallography, the study of crystals was based on the geometry of the crystals. This involves measuring the angles of crystal faces relative to theoretical reference axes (crystallographic axes), and establishing the symmetry of the crystal in question. Crystallographic methods now depend on the analysis of the diffraction patterns that emerge from a sample that is targeted by a beam of some type. The beam is not always electromagnetic radiation, even though X-rays are the most common choice. For some purposes electrons or neutrons are used, which is possible due to the wave properties of the particles.

   Related Associations:
       American Crystallographic Association

Electromagnetism is the branch of science that deals with the physical relations between electricity and magnetism. Light is electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetism is the physics of the electromagnetic field: a field which exerts a force on particles that possess the property of electric charge, and is in turn affected by the presence and motion of those particles. The magnetic field is produced by the motion of electric charges, such as electric current. The magnetic field causes the magnetic force associated with magnets. The theoretical implications of electromagnetism led to the development of special relativity by Albert Einstein in 1905.

   Related Associations:
       American Institute of Physics

Energy, as defined by physicists, is the ability to do work. Energy is one of the most basic ideas of science. Energy occurs in many forms; physicists seek to find relationships between the various forms of energy. All occurrences in the universe can be explained in terms of energy and matter. Physicists studying energy consider a system containing objects that have the ability to transfer energy back and forth among themselves. Advances in physics have had many applications in the area of energy efficiency, including the development of energy efficient lighting, windows, heating and cooling systems, and electrical power plants.

   Related Associations:
       American Institute of Physics

Engineering is the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy, or physical forces, in nature are made useful to man in the form of structures, machines, products, systems, and processes at a reasonable expenditure of time and money. Physics is closely related to engineering in that engineering uses physical principles in solving everyday problems and developing applications for the improvement of the quality of human life.  Find out more about engineering.

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the American Institute of Physics.

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