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Photo, caption follows:

A computer simulation of light scattering from a pair of nanoparticles.
Credit: K. Lance Kelly, George C. Schatz, Northwestern University

Cover Page Credit: © Infn Photo 2004

Physics begins with the everyday physical world around us—the blue of the sky, the colors of the rainbow, the fall of an apple, the motions of the moon. What’s happening here? Why do things work this way?

Physics goes on to give us many answers—along with a rich and detailed account of things like force, motion, gravity, heat, light, electricity and magnetism: the mechanisms that actually give rise to the everyday world.

But of course, physics doesn’t end there. Once you start asking about the fall of an apple, there’s no turning back. Each question leads to the next, until you finally find yourself probing into the deepest secrets of matter, energy, space—even time itself. What are they? How do they really work? And where is the deep, unifying principle that can help us truly understand them?

The quest to answer these questions has led physicists on a long journey inward, first to the structure of the atom, then to the powerful and dangerous forces inside the atomic nucleus, and more recently to a bewildering array of “subatomic” particles that they’ve christened with names like quark, gluon and lepton. The quest has also led physicists on a long journey outward, to studies of how the stars shine, how black holes behave, how galaxies form, and how the universe is expanding. And now, ironically enough, the journey inward and the journey outward seem to be leading physicists to the same place. The physics of the tiniest particles turns out to be intimately intertwined with the universe as a whole, and how the Big Bang brought it all into being some 13.7 billion years ago.

Back on the human scale, meanwhile, physics continues to be an intensely practical kind of science. Among the many modern technologies coming out of physics research are x-ray machines, radio, radar, lasers, the Global Positioning System, superconductivity, MRI scans and—through fundamental studies in solid-state physics—the microchip. Today, moreover, with their work in areas such as Bose-Einstein condensates and quantum computation, physicists are laying the groundwork for still newer generations of technology.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has nurtured physics in all these endeavors, from individual laboratories at the universities to massive detectors at the big particle accelerators. Indeed, along with agencies such as the Department of Energy, NSF is one of the leading sources of support for physics research in the United States. And, NSF is a major source of support for the rising generation of students in physics—the generation that will soon be joining in the attack on the field’s greatest challenges:

row bullet Understanding Emergence
row bullet The New Quantum Revolution
row bullet The Physics of Life and Mind
row bullet The Quest for the Ultimate Unity
row bullet The Physics of the Universe