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Theoretical physics is a branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physics to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. The importance of mathematics in theoretical physics is sometimes emphasized by the expression "mathematical physics".^{[1]}^{[a]}
The advancement of science depends in general on the interplay between experimental studies and theory. In some cases, theoretical physics adheres to standards of mathematical rigor while giving little weight to experiments and observations. For example, while developing special relativity, Albert Einstein was concerned with the Lorentz transformation which left Maxwell's equations invariant, but was apparently uninterested in the Michelson-Morley experiment on Earth's drift through a luminiferous ether. On the other hand, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for explaining the photoelectric effect, previously an experimental result lacking a theoretical formulation.
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A physical theory is a model of physical events. It is judged by the extent to which its predictions agree with empirical observations. The quality of a physical theory is also judged on its ability to make new predictions which can be verified by new observations. A physical theory differs from a mathematical theorem in that while both are based on some form of axioms, judgment of mathematical applicability is not based on agreement with any experimental results.
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The equations for an Einstein manifold, used in general relativity to describe the curvature of spacetime |
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A physical theory involves one or more relationships between various measurable quantities. Archimedes realized that a ship floats by displacing its mass of water, Pythagoras understood the relation between the length of a vibrating string and the musical tone it produces, and how to calculate the length of a rectangle's diagonal. Other examples include entropy as a measure of the uncertainty regarding the positions and motions of unseen particles and the quantum mechanical idea that (action and) energy are not continuously variable.
Sometimes the vision provided by pure mathematical systems can provide clues to how a physical system might be modeled; e.g., the notion, due to Riemann and others, that space itself might be curved.
Theoretical advances may consist in setting aside old, incorrect paradigms (e.g., Burning consists of evolving phlogiston, or Astronomical bodies revolve around the Earth) or may be an alternative model that provides answers that are more accurate or that can be more widely applied.
Physical theories become accepted if they are able to make correct predictions and no (or few) incorrect ones. The theory should have, at least as a secondary objective, a certain economy and elegance (compare to mathematical beauty), a notion sometimes called "Occam's razor" after the 13th-century English philosopher William of Occam (or Ockham), in which the simpler of two theories that describe the same matter just as adequately is preferred. (But conceptual simplicity may mean mathematical complexity.) They are also more likely to be accepted if they connect a wide range of phenomena. Testing the consequences of a theory is part of the scientific method.
Physical theories can be grouped into three categories: mainstream theories, proposed theories and fringe theories.
Theoretical physics began at least 2,300 years ago, under the Pre-socratic philosophy, and continued by Plato and Aristotle, whose views held sway for a millennium. In medieval times, during the rise of the universities, the only acknowledged intellectual disciplines were theology, mathematics, medicine, and law. As the concepts of matter, energy, space, time and causality slowly began to acquire the form we know today, other sciences spun off from the rubric of natural philosophy. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the concept of experimental science, the counterpoint to theory, began with scholars such as Ibn al-Haytham and Francis Bacon. The modern era of theory began perhaps with the Copernican paradigm shift in astronomy, soon followed by Johannes Kepler's expressions for planetary orbits, which summarized the meticulous observations of Tycho Brahe.
The great push toward the modern concept of explanation started with Galileo, one of the few physicists who was both a consummate theoretician and a great experimentalist. The analytic geometry and mechanics of Descartes were incorporated into the calculus and mechanics of Isaac Newton, another theoretician/experimentalist of the highest order, writing Principia Mathematica.^{[2]} Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Leonhard Euler and William Rowan Hamilton would extend the theory of classical mechanics considerably. Each of these individuals picked up the interactive intertwining of mathematics and physics begun two millennia earlier by Pythagoras.
Among the great conceptual achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries were the consolidation of the idea of energy by the inclusion of heat, then electricity and magnetism and light, and finally mass. The laws of thermodynamics, and most importantly the introduction of the singular concept of entropy began to provide a macroscopic explanation for the properties of matter.
The pillars of modern physics, and perhaps the most revolutionary theories in the history of physics, have been relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Newtonian mechanics was subsumed under special relativity and Newton's gravity was given a kinematic explanation by general relativity. Quantum mechanics led to an understanding of blackbody radiation and of anomalies in the specific heats of solids — and finally to an understanding of the internal structures of atoms and molecules.
All of these achievements depended on the theoretical physics as a moving force both to suggest experiments and to consolidate results — often by ingenious application of existing mathematics, or, as in the case of Descartes and Newton (with Leibniz), by inventing new mathematics. Fourier's studies of heat conduction led to a new branch of mathematics: infinite, orthogonal series.
Modern theoretical physics attempts to unify theories and explain phenomena in further attempts to understand the Universe, from the cosmological to the elementary particle scale. Where experimentation cannot be done, theoretical physics still tries to advance through the use of mathematical models.
Famous theoretical physicists include
Mainstream theories (sometimes referred to as central theories) are the body of knowledge of both factual and scientific views and possess a usual scientific quality of the tests of repeatability, consistency with existing well-established science and experimentation. There do exist mainstream theories that are generally accepted theories based solely upon their effects explaining a wide variety of data, although the detection, explanation and possible composition are subjects of debate.
The proposed theories of physics are usually relatively new theories which deal with the study of physics which include scientific approaches, means for determining the validity of models and new types of reasoning used to arrive at the theory. However, some proposed theories include theories that have been around for decades and have eluded methods of discovery and testing. Proposed theories can include fringe theories in the process of becoming established (and, sometimes, gaining wider acceptance). Proposed theories usually have not been tested.
Fringe theories include any new area of scientific endeavor in the process of becoming established and some proposed theories. It can include speculative sciences. This includes physics fields and physical theories presented in accordance with known evidence, and a body of associated predictions have been made according to that theory.
Some fringe theories go on to become a widely accepted part of physics. Other fringe theories end up being disproven. Some fringe theories are a form of protoscience and others are a form of pseudoscience. The falsification of the original theory sometimes leads to reformulation of the theory.
"Thought" experiments are situations created in ones mind, asking a question akin to "Suppose you are in this situation. Assuming such is true, what would follow?". They are usually created to investigate phenomena that are not readily experienced in every-day situations. Famous examples of such thought experiments are Schrödinger's cat, the EPR thought experiment, simple illustrations of time dilation, and so on. These usually lead to real experiments designed to verify that the conclusion (and therefore the assumptions) of the thought experiments are correct. The EPR thought experiment lead to the Bell inequalities, which were then tested to various degrees of rigor, leading to the acceptance of the current formulation of quantum mechanics and probabilism as a working hypotheses.
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