Physics and Astronomy

Scope and Objectives

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, a natural affinity has existed between astronomy and physics, and the intellectual development of the two disciplines has often proceeded synergistically. Newton’s discovery of the laws of mechanics and universal gravitation not only explained motion on Earth, but brought the heavens and Earth into a single quantitative framework in which both are governed by the same laws. The revolutionary discoveries of twentieth-century physics — quantum mechanics and nuclear physics — were rapidly adopted by astronomers to interpret the spectroscopic observations of the stars and to construct accurate models of stellar structure. Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted the expansion of the universe and that most awesome compaction of matter — the black hole.

Today astronomers study the accretion of matter onto supermassive black holes in quasars and search the most distant regions of the universe to learn about the exotic physical conditions that existed when the universe’s expansion was only fractions of a second old. By measuring the gravitational interactions on distance scales from galaxies to the vast superclusters of galaxies, astronomers have concluded that most of the universe’s matter is dark or nonluminous; physicists have speculated that this dark matter may consist of yet-undiscovered exotic particles that are predicted by the most advanced theories of elementary particle physics.

Department of Physics and Astronomy faculty members and students are able to study the universe in the holistic manner that is demanded by the breadth of these two disciplines.