Physics: Definition and Branches

Updated on August 21, 2019
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

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What Is Physics?

The word physics is derived from the Latin word physica, which means "natural thing."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, physics is defined as:

Definition of "Physics" by the Oxford English Dictionary

"The branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. The subject matter of physics includes mechanics, heat, light and other radiation, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the structure of atoms."

Another definition by the digital encyclopedia Microsoft Encarta describes physics as:

Definition of "Physics" by Microsoft Encarta

“A major science dealing with the fundamental constituents of the universe, the forces they exert on one another, and the results produced by these forces. Sometimes in modern physics a more sophisticated approach is taken that incorporates elements of the three areas listed above; it relates to the laws of symmetry and conservation, such as those pertaining to energy, momentum, charge, and parity.”

What these definitions indicate is that physics is a branch of science that deals with the properties of matter and energy and the relationship between them. It also tries to explain the material world and the natural phenomena of the universe.

The scope of physics is very wide and vast. It deals with not only the tinniest particles of atoms, but also natural phenomenon like the galaxy, the milky way, solar and lunar eclipses, and more. While it is true that physics is a branch of science, there are many sub-branches within the field of physics. In this article, we will explore each of them in depth.

What Are the Branches of Physics?

While there are more branches sprouting up as science and technology progresses, there are generally 11 branches of physics. These are as follows.

Branches of Physics

  1. Classical physics
  2. Modern physics
  3. Nuclear physics
  4. Atomic physics
  5. Geophysics
  6. Biophysics
  7. Mechanics
  8. Acoustics
  9. Optics
  10. Thermodynamics
  11. Astrophysics

Continue reading to explore each of these branches in depth.

1. Classical Physics

This branch of physics is mainly concerned with the laws of motion and gravitation as outlined in Sir Isaac Newton and James Clark Maxwell’s kinetic theory and thermodynamics, respectively. This branch of physics deals mostly with matter and energy. Often, physics which date before 1900 are considered classical physics, whereas physic which date after 1900 are considered modern physics.

In classical physics, energy and matter are considered separate entities. Acoustics, optics, classical mechanics, and electromagnetics are traditionally branches within classical physics. Moreover, any theory of physics that is considered null and void in modern physics automatically falls under the realm of classical physics.

As Newton's Laws are one of the main features of classical physics, let's examine them.

What Are the Three Laws of Physics?

The three laws of physics, as they are commonly referred to, are known formally as Newton's laws of motion. They are considered the basis of classical mechanics. Newton's laws describe the motion of a body upon which forces may act and which may exert forces on other bodies.

When we speak of bodies, we are not speaking of actual human bodies (although human bodies can be included in this definition), but of any piece of matter upon which a force may act. Newton's three laws are outlined below.

Newton's Laws of Motion (The Three Laws of Physics)

  1. Law of Inertia: A body remains at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by a force.
  2. Force = Mass x Acceleration: A body's rate of change of momentum is proportional to the force causing it.
  3. Action = Reaction: When a force acts on a body due to another body, then an equal and opposite force acts simultaneously on that body.

The Three Laws of Physics Explained (Video)

2. Modern Physics

Modern physics is a branch of physics that is mainly concerned with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Albert Einstein and Max Plank were the pioneers of modern of physics as the first scientists to introduce the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, respectively.

In modern physics, energy and matter are not considered as separate entities. Rather, they are considered different forms of each other.

What Are the Two Pillars of Modern Physics?

The two pillars of modern physics are as follows.

  1. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity
  2. Max Plank's quantum theory.

What Is the Theory of Relativity?

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity is one of the most important discoveries of the contemporary age, and states that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. As a result of this discovery, Einstein was able to confirm that space and time are interwoven in a single continuum known as space-time. As such, events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.

Einstein's theory of relativity is summarized in the formula:

E = mc^2

In this equation, "E" represents energy, "m" represents mass, and "c" represents the speed of light.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity Explained (Video)

What Is Quantum Theory?

Discovered by Max Plank in 1900, quantum theory is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. The nature and behaviour of matter and energy at that level is sometimes referred to as quantum physics and quantum mechanics.

Plank discovered that energy exists in individual units in the same way that matter does, rather than just as a constant electromagnetic wave. Thus, energy was quantifiable. The existence of these units, called quanta, act as the basis of Plank's quantum theory.

3. Nuclear Physics

Nuclear physics is a branch of physics that deals with the constituents, structure, behaviour and interactions of atomic nuclei. This branch of physics should not be confused with atomic physics, which studies the atom as a whole, including its electrons.

According to the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, nuclear physics is defined as:

“The branch of physics in which the structure, forces, and behaviour of the atomic nucleus are studied.”

In the modern age, nuclear physics has become very wide in its scope and has been applied in many fields. It is used in power generation, nuclear weapons, medicines, magnetic resonance, imaging, industrial and agricultural isotopes, and more.

Who Discovered Nuclear Physics?

The history of nuclear physics as a distinct field from atomic physics begins with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896. The discovery of the electron one year later indicated that the atom had an internal structure.

With this, studies began on the nuclei of atoms, thus nuclear physics was born.

Nuclear physicists examine only the nucleus, not the atom as a whole.
Nuclear physicists examine only the nucleus, not the atom as a whole. | Source

4. Atomic Physics

Atomic physics is a branch of physics that deals with the composition of the atom apart from the nucleus. It is mainly concerned with the arrangement and behaviour of electrons in the shells around the nucleus. Thus, atomic physics mostly examines electrons, ions, and neutral atoms.

One of the earliest steps towards atomic physics was recognizing that all matter is comprised of atoms. The true beginning of atomic physics is marked by the discovery of spectral lines and the attempt to explain them. This resulted in an entirely new understanding of the structure of atoms and how they behave.

5. Geophysics

Geophysics is a branch of physics that deals with the study of the Earth. It is mainly concerned with the shape, structure and composition of the Earth, but geophysicists also study gravitational force, magnetic fields, earthquakes, magma, and more.

Geophysics was only recognized as a separate discipline in the 19th century, but its origins date back to ancient times. The first magnetic compasses were made from

All of these discoveries can be included in the field of geophysics, which is defined as:

"a natural science concerned with the physical processes and physical properties of the Earth and its surrounding space environment, and the use of quantitative methods for their analysis."

Computer simulation of the Earth's magnetic field in a period of normal polarity between reversals.
Computer simulation of the Earth's magnetic field in a period of normal polarity between reversals. | Source

6. Biophysics

According to the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, biophysics is defined as:

“the interdisciplinary study of biological phenomena and problems, using the principles and techniques of physics.”

Biophysics studies biological problems and the structure of molecules in living organisms using techniques derived from physics. One of the most groundbreaking achievements of biophysics is the discovery of the structure of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) by James Watson and Francis Crick.

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7. Mechanical Physics

Mechanical physics is a branch of physics that deals with the motion of material objects under the influence of forces.

Often called just mechanics, mechanical physics falls under two main branches:

  • Classical mechanics
  • Quantum mechanics

Classical mechanics deals with the laws of motion of physical objects and the forces that cause the motion, while quantum mechanics is the branch of physics which deals with the behaviour of smallest particles (i.e. electrons, neutrons, and protons).

What Are the Main Branches of Mechanics?

Mechanics can be broken down into eight sub-branches. These are as follows:

  1. Applied mechanics
  2. Celestial mechanics
  3. Continuum mechanics
  4. Dynamics
  5. Kinematics
  6. Kinetics
  7. Statics
  8. Statistical mechanics

8. Acoustics

The word "acoustics" is derived from a Greek word akouen, meaning "to hear."

Hence, we can define acoustics as a branch of physics that studies how sound is produced, transmitted, received and controlled. Acoustics also deals with the effects of sounds in various mediums (i.e. gas, liquid, and solids).

9. Optics

Optics is a branch of physics that studies electromagnetic radiation (for example, light and infrared radiation), its interactions with matter, and instruments used to gather information due to these interactions. Optics includes the study of sight.

The Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia defines optics as:

“a branch of physical science dealing with the propagation and behaviour of light. In a general sense, light is that part of the electromagnetic spectrum that extends from X rays to microwaves and includes the radiant energy that produces the sensation of vision.”

Who Invented Optics?

Optics began with the creation of lenses by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. This was followed up by theories of light and vision developed by ancient Greek philosophers and the development of geometric optics in the Greco-Roman world.

These earlier studies on optics are known as classical optics. Studies that came after the 20th century, such as wave optics and quantum optics, are known as modern optics.

10. Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that deals with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work. The behaviour of these quantities is governed by the four laws of thermodynamics.

Who Discovered Thermodynamics?

The field of thermodynamics was developed from the work of Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot who believed that engine efficiency was the key that could help France win the Napoleonic Wars.

The Scottish physicist Lord Kelvin was the first to come up with a concise definition of thermodynamics. His definition stated:

"Thermo-dynamics is the subject of the relation of heat to forces acting between contiguous parts of bodies, and the relation of heat to electrical agency."

What Are the Four Laws of Thermodynamics?

The four laws of thermodynamics are as follows.

  1. If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system, they are in thermal equilibrium with each other. This law helps define the concept of temperature.
  2. When energy passes, as work, as heat, or with matter, into or out from a system, the system's internal energy changes in accord with the law of conservation of energy. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the first kind (machines that produce work with no energy input) are impossible.
  3. In a natural thermodynamic process, the sum of the entropies of the interacting thermodynamic systems increases. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the second kind (machines that spontaneously convert thermal energy into mechanical work) are impossible.
  4. The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero. With the exception of non-crystalline solids (glasses), the entropy of a system at absolute zero is typically close to zero, and is equal to the natural logarithm of the product of the quantum ground states.

11. Astrophysics

The word "astrophysics" is a combination of two Latin-derived words: astro, which means "star," and phisis, which means "nature."

Thus, astrophysics can be defined as a branch of astronomy which is concerned with the study of universe (i.e., stars, galaxies, and planets) using the laws of physics.

What Is the Difference Between and Astrophysicist and an Astronomer?

Technically speaking, astronomers only measure the positions and characteristics of celestial bodies, whereas astrophysicists use the application physics to understand astronomy.

However, the terms are now used interchangeably, since all astronomers use physics to conduct their research.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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      Raima 

      44 hours ago

      Not bad doing good

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      Ahmd Fhs 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank You

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      Talaviya rushita 

      4 weeks ago

      Good

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      ASIM RASHID KHAN 

      4 weeks ago

      Great work,,,

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      paschal 

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      Excellent and comprehensive

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      Khalid Ahmad adam 

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      Thanks you

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      TOM OLITUNDA A. 

      4 weeks ago

      Good work, love it

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      Nancy 

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      Thank you

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      Random student doing homework 

      6 weeks ago

      I think you forgot quantum physics but it’s fine. Love This already

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      7 weeks ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome and thanks for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

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      Debasish nayak 

      7 weeks ago

      Thank you for all tips ,be able to get a chance of win.....

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      Nameless 

      7 weeks ago

      Hello.I really want to thank you fro this.I'm actually doing researches to keep in a journal for further classes.Physics usually is really complex fro me.But thanks to you new words like "thermal equilibrium" or even "Astrophysics" looks easy and simple to understand.So thank you a lot,you are helping a lot of people!

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      Sir in The University Division of Education National Theory#~STUDENT 

      7 weeks ago

      Really it was very helpfull!!!!!

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      unknown 

      7 weeks ago

      This is really informative.Physics seems a lot more easier when summarized like this.Thank you a lot,it really helped me.Keep it up and I hope you get more people that will appreciate you work!

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      aa 

      7 weeks ago

      good

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      remlouecastillo@gmail.com 

      7 weeks ago

      excellent work

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      Olamide 

      2 months ago

      Thanks allot for your support and please continue to do this so as to help so many students like me

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      Naila 

      2 months ago

      Thank you sooo much i relly need that information

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      My name is halima 

      2 months ago

      Nice work

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      David 

      2 months ago

      Quite interesting. A very good and comprehensive work. Kudos.

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      Jeza 

      2 months ago

      This is very useful for my assignment

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      fatima 

      2 months ago

      so much informative website

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      Sunusi umar 

      2 months ago

      Good

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      Ammu 

      2 months ago

      I have a good opinion

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      Johnson 

      2 months ago

      Good explanations

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      Aniket 

      3 months ago

      Thank you.

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      Andrews 

      3 months ago

      awesome and good simplification

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      Jagath 

      3 months ago

      Easy to learn

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      Srihari 

      3 months ago

      I like your simplification. I like this article. Very useful to physics lovers,And to me. Please write more articles on physics.

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      Dr. Catalino N. Mendoza 

      3 months ago

      It really helps to spark the tone in tge discussion in getting thw interest of thw student

      Good luck and more power

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      Twinkle sharma 

      4 months ago

      Thanks

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      GODSWILL MOSES NKEMAKOLAM 

      4 months ago

      Incredible and awesome

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      Shiwangi 

      4 months ago

      Great

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      Achu 

      4 months ago

      Thanks for giving like this knowleges

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      liji 

      4 months ago

      Thanksgiving

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      Kiran 

      4 months ago

      U helped a lot. .thanks

    • profile image

      Benjamin Barnabas from Adamawa state colledge of agriculture Ganye. 

      5 months ago

      it realy realy help me in my first assignmemt of our ressuming,thanks

    • profile image

      Suneel 

      5 months ago

      Not full branches

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      karis 

      5 months ago

      good

      you realy help alot in studies

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      Sofia rehan 

      6 months ago

      I think these are not full branches

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      manyazewal 

      6 months ago

      best

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      Mussadiq Iqbal 

      7 months ago

      Good.

      God bless you.

    • profile image

      Shaima 

      7 months ago

      It's good best wishes

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      Rameen 

      7 months ago

      I learned a lot

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      Bootaan 

      8 months ago

      Its good information , it helps me .

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      donaldlonungu@gmail.com 

      9 months ago

      thank you so much

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      Nirmala 

      9 months ago

      Thank you so much it is really helpful for my studies

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      om chavan 

      9 months ago

      oh nice

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      olamide 

      9 months ago

      good job, u really help alot

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      Oliver Karplah Gaye 

      9 months ago

      Thank you so much for acknowledgment it helps people

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      Sundas 

      9 months ago

      It really helped me thanks for the information!!!!!

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      Mohamed issa kargbo 

      10 months ago

      it's important to solve mathematical problems

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      Angel 

      10 months ago

      Thank you,very comprehensive

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      ezra 

      10 months ago

      very thank you

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      Ahiafor Reuben Doe Kwame Junior 

      11 months ago

      It has really helped me alot thanks for the information

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      Mujahed Ahmad 

      11 months ago

      Thanks

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      hogwards 

      11 months ago

      helped me alot for my assignment. i appreciate it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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      Maryam 

      11 months ago

      It is so good

      It helped me very much to complete my assignment

    • profile image

      Ameenu 

      11 months ago

      This is the simplest explanation i have ever come across so far in physics, it is very easy to comprehend. thanks

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      rofiat suru 

      11 months ago

      It really helped me thanks for the information

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      fasil mitku 

      12 months ago

      thanx for the information

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      Chukwu Chiagozie Innocent 

      12 months ago

      Thanx For Ur Help On This Great Discovery May God Reward U

    • profile image

      yehoida 

      12 months ago

      this is quite interresting and helpful but i have one question between all the types or branches of science which of them is more easier and nice to learn I'm asking because i want to know which course i want to master i was thinking about doing geoscience but im also seeing biology as an easy subject please help me , make the right decision before my time is up.

      thanks

    • profile image

      Aj 

      13 months ago

      thanks for the info

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      13 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Victor Wllie for stopping by and commenting!

    • profile image

      jonjie 

      13 months ago

      this is so helpful thank you

    • profile image

      Dr.Raaz 

      13 months ago

      Interresting!that was wonderfull and helpfull.i really appreciate it

    • profile image

      Israr... 

      13 months ago

      Brilliant.

    • profile image

      Johnny 

      13 months ago

      That was really helpful

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      Sage 

      13 months ago

      Interesting one, thank you for this.

    • profile image

      Laraib. Malik 

      13 months ago

      Thanxx for helpful information

    • profile image

      Emmanuel (Uguru) Chidozie, University of PortHarcourt, Nigeria. 

      13 months ago

      Sir, I am immeasurably grateful to you for your detailed treatment of Physics and it's various branches . It has greatly assisted me in my Ph.D.thesis.

    • profile image

      Junaid 

      13 months ago

      Great job thanks for guidance its helpfull

    • profile image

      FRED MALENZHI 

      13 months ago

      THANKS

    • profile image

      pondamali mashaka 

      14 months ago

      zeroth thermodynamic law show the relationship between heat and temperature!

    • profile image

      Uchexcel 

      14 months ago

      Thanks for this great job. But you did not include Solar energy Physics, Meteorological Physics , Statistical Physics, Medical Physics, Solid State Physics( Physics electronics), and Ionospheric Physics.

    • profile image

      Joshua 

      14 months ago

      why mathematics is the langguage of physcis?

    • profile image

      samreen 

      14 months ago

      This was really helpful... thankyou very much

    • profile image

      Mithun 

      14 months ago

      Easy to understand

    • profile image

      Evelyn 

      14 months ago

      Thanks

    • profile image

      oyebanji Gbohunmi 

      15 months ago

      The author tried he is so enlightened to impact knowledge ,but pls add many quiz to answer and scores .,prizes should also be awarded .thanks am so enlightened and grateful sir/ma

    • profile image

      itsme_alexandrea 

      15 months ago

      Is classical physics is one of the branches of physics?

      if yes, my ghod! i thought that physics has only 10 branches.. and now? it's 11?

      please anyone answer me..

    • profile image

      Anshu 

      15 months ago

      Nice introduction to physics

    • profile image

      Raashid Rashid 

      16 months ago

      This all was good but their should be a flow chart to understand much better

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      16 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for your comments. I am glad you liked it.

    • profile image

      hareem Malik 

      16 months ago

      Really all the definition and branches of physics explain vry well I am impressed love it......

    • profile image

      thanks. 

      16 months ago

      thanks

    • profile image

      Leomel 

      16 months ago

      Thank you

    • profile image

      peter 

      16 months ago

      where is the classical and modern physics?

    • profile image

      Jasmine 

      16 months ago

      Not nice but intresting

    • profile image

      Jasmine 

      16 months ago

      Please add many quiz

    • profile image

      Silver 

      17 months ago

      Tanks

    • profile image

      Anna 

      17 months ago

      Thanks , it helped me a lot,

      As a student these answers made me more satisfied

      Keep going like this!!

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      17 months ago from Pakistan

      Rafiq, M (05.04.2014). Physics: Definition & Branches, Retrieved from https://owlcation.com

    • profile image

      Michael 

      17 months ago

      please how do reference this article please it's urgent

    • profile image

      Eram 

      17 months ago

      Thanx for your kind help.....

    • profile image

      shabnam 

      18 months ago

      thnx sir. i find the right answer from here.

    • profile image

      Aurangzaib meo 

      18 months ago

      So nice thanks Sir wo ri8 this for help us

    • profile image

      mbah Joseph nnaemeka 

      18 months ago

      Thanks their

    • profile image

      Elvis o gbor 

      19 months ago

      I finally see what i was looking for. (THANKS)

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