Does physics relate to everyday life? It may not seem like it, but physics is all around us. Physics concepts aren't just for scientists—they're important for anyone.

Understanding basic physics concepts can make you look smart in front of your boss or a date. It can help you avoid car crashes or get out of a ditch. It can even be the path to a great career in a variety of fields. But perhaps most importantly: it'll help you understand how the world we live in works.

We at Brainscape, also being geeks in the cognitive science of learning, just happen to happen to be Physics geeks ourselves.

What is physics? It the study of the physical world. It covers a range of topics including matter (which is any substance that has mass), and the movement of that matter through space and time in the universe. It’s one of the fundamental sciences and is dedicated to describing how our world functions.

And today, we’ll be sharing four basic physics concepts with you to help you understand this subject a little bit better.

The 4 most fundamental physics concepts

Physics concepts on a blackboard

1. Classical mechanics (the laws of motion)

If you’ve studied any sort of science, you’ve probably heard the story of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree and formulating the basic laws of motion. While the story is partly apocryphal, there is actually some truth to it.

In 1687, Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the first book that laid out the fundamental laws of motion or classical mechanics. In the book, Newton laid out and explained the three fundamental laws of classical mechanics:

  1. Objects at rest will remain at rest, and objects in motion will remain in motion at the same velocity, unless the object is acted on by an external force.
  2. Force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma).
  3. When one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first.

These may sound a little abstract, but when you think about it, these laws of mechanics are can be clearly observed in everyday life. On a flat surface, a ball will remain still unless someone kicks it, or the wind blows it. On a hill, gravity acts upon it and pulls it downhill.

As far as force, we all understand that being hit by a dodgeball moving 30 mph isn’t the same as being hit by a car moving at the same speed. The mass of the object makes a difference in the force. And finally, we all understand that if we punch a wall, we’re probably going to break our hand. We may hit the wall hard, but the wall exerts an equal and opposite force in return. Ouch.

2. Electromagnetism

A purple electron demonstrating electromagnetism
Electromagnetism is ultimately responsible for light, radio waves, and even electricity.

What is light? It’s impossible to understand this simple question without talking about electromagnetism, one of the four basic forces that govern the universe. Electromagnetism refers to the forces generated by the electrons that are found in certain types of matter throughout the universe. Some types of matter, such as the compounds found in magnets, have electrons that are configured in such a way as to exert force on other electrons that are in “charged particles.”

These compounds exert energy on other “charged particles,” which is why a magnet will attract a paperclip but not your finger. The force carried by an electromagnetic field is carried by photons, which are particles that sometimes act like waves (or waves that sometimes act like particles).

Confusing, I know. The basic thing to understand is that electromagnetic radiation makes up much of our everyday lives. Visible light itself is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Other types of electromagnetic radiation are x-rays, radio waves, and so on. Electricity, of course, is created through the manipulation of electromagnetic forces.

3. Relativity

General relativity is a basic concept in physics that is often described using the analogy of a moving vehicle. Let’s say you’re riding in a car traveling at 60 mph. It’s a convertible, and the top is down. You throw a ball directly upwards. Relativity helps to explain the fact that there are two different perspectives on what happens to the ball.

From your perspective, inside the car, you have applied one upward force to the ball. From the perspective of someone outside the car who is standing still, the ball was already traveling 60 mph inside the car when the second force was applied. This is a simple example, but can be expanded to larger scales: for example, the Earth is currently rotating around the sun at around 67,000 miles per hour—but due to relativity, it doesn’t feel like that to us.

General relativity was expanded in the early 1900s when Albert Einstein created special relativity. In his writings, Einstein theorized an “absolute speed limit” for light—a speed which could not be exceeded regardless of relativity. Imagine this: you’re stationary in the middle of space, measuring the speed that light is moving past you. The light source is nearby, stationary. You measure the speed of light as 671 million miles per hour.

Then you conduct two further experiments. In the first, the light source is now being propelled away from you at a speed of 300 million miles per hour. In the second, the light source is moving towards you at the same speed. Each time you measure the speed of the light, however, the number is the same: 671 million miles per hour.

What does this mean? Well, for one, it stretches time: the faster you move, the slower time goes. Yes, this is as wild as it sounds. The truth is so much stranger than fiction.

4. Thermodynamics

The study of thermodynamics revolves around the relationship between heat, energy, and mechanical work. Thermodynamics revolves around four laws (that, for whatever reason, are numbered zero through three). The laws emerge from a basic interpretation of heat as movement

It's complicated, but basically, this is what is important: at an atomic level, what we perceive as “temperature” actually refers to atomic movement. On a hot day, for example, solar energy excites the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere to vibrate rapidly. This vibration carries energy which is transferred to our skin, making us feel warm. Similarly, "cold" atoms are those that move less. It's not that heat makes atoms move; it's that atom movement is heat.

Sun over mountains
They Physical concept of thermodynamics explains how the sun's energy excites atoms on earth, creating heat.

General knowledge doesn't stop with physics

We hope you enjoyed this brief look into physics and that it stimulates your thirst for more learning. The more you understand about science, the more you understand and appreciate this beautiful world we live in.

And it's not only physics concepts that are useful for your general knowledge. There are a ton of other subjects out there (like biology, math, languages, art, and so on) that help you understand this world a little bit better. We just don't always have the time to learn them.

That's why Brainscape is the perfect solution if you’re seeking to brush up on your general knowledge. Our flexible, adaptive flashcards app that helps you learn new concepts twice as quickly as you would doing traditional exercises.

Through a multi-year project involving hundreds of students, teachers, professors, and experts from different fields, Brainscape has compiled a critical base set of knowledge across a huge range of subjects. We call it Knowledge Rehab. Whether you want to review the arts, sciences, social sciences, or even pop culture and entertainment, it’s all here for you to learn.

And if you need more help learning physics specifically, check out the Brainscape our adaptive flashcards for both Physics 101 or MCAT Physics!