The connection between physics, technology and society can be seen in many examples. The discipline of thermodynamics arose from the need to understand and improve the working of heat engines. The steam engine, as we know, is inseparable from the Industrial Revolution in England in the eighteenth century, which had great impact on the course of human civilisation. Sometimes technology gives rise to new physics; at other times physics generates new technology. An example of the latter is the wireless communication technology that followed the discovery of the basic laws of electricity and magnetism in the nineteenth century. The applications of physics are not always easy to foresee. As late as 1933, the great physicist Ernest Rutherford had dismissed the possibility of tapping energy from atoms. But only a few years later, in 1938, Hahn and Meitner discovered the phenomenon of neutron-induced fission of uranium, which would serve as the basis of nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons. Yet another important example of physics giving rise to technology is the silicon ‘chip’ that triggered the computer revolution in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

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Physics XI | Hypothesis, axioms and models

Hypothesis, axioms and models

One should not think that everything can be proved with physics and mathematics. All physics, and also mathematics, is based on assumptions, each of which is variously called a hypothesis or axiom or postulate, etc.

For example, the universal law of gravitation proposed by Newton is an assumption or hypothesis, which he proposed out of his ingenuity. Before him, there were several observations, experiments and data, on the motion of planets around the sun, motion of the moon around the earth, pendulums, bodies falling towards the earth etc. Each of these required a separate explanation, which was more or less qualitative. What the universal law of gravitation says is that, if we assume that any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, then we can explain all these observations in one stroke. It not only explains these phenomena, it also allows us to predict the results of future experiments.

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