Physics is an important subject that helps us understand the processes that take place in life. Physics helps the medical personnel in three major ways. First, it helps clarify the functionality of the medical sciences and technology. Second, physics helps explain the physical systems occurring in the body. Finally, understanding physics helps in many other fields providing the framework to solve unsolved problems.
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Image: “Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. Lecturer Vadim Evgenyevich Privalov presents material of electrostatics for first-year students of the Faculty of Radiophysics.” by Dan5265 (Филатов Даниил Леонидович / Daniil Filatov, Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University) – Own work. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Introduction to Physics


Motion is defined as the act of changing location or position. Three types of motion exist: translational, oscillatory, and rotational. Translational motions occur when a change in location takes place. Oscillatory motion is motion that takes place without changing location. An example of such motion is the vibration of strings on a musical instrument. Rotational motion deals with the spinning that occurs in objects.


Force occurs when two objects interact with each other. Each object has a force on the other: a push or a pull. When the interaction between the two objects stops, then the force also disappears. This force can be separated into two categories: forces from contact and forces from action-at-a-distance. The difference between the two classifications is whether the two objects are in direct contact with each other or not. The unit of force is newton (N).


The definition of equilibrium is defined in the word itself. It deals with equal parts implying a balance. If an object has forces acting on it, the object may undergo motion. However, if the object is in equilibrium, then the object will not move since all the forces balance each other.

One way to look at the motion of an object is to separate the forces acting on the object into horizontal and vertical forces. In equilibrium, the horizontal forces will balance themselves and the vertical forces will balance themselves. Thus, no motion of the object will occur in either the horizontal or vertical axes.


Momentum can be understood by looking at mass and velocity of an object. Mass is a property of an object that measures the amount of matter in an object. Velocity is the amount of distance an object travels over a given time. It is a vector quantity so directionality is also expressed. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity, also a vector quantity. In practicality, momentum refers to the quantity of motion possessed by an object. The unit of momentum is kilogram-meter per second (kg-m/s).


Energy is the property that is transferred to an object to allow it to generate work. Energy in the universe is fixed implying that it can be transferred but cannot be created nor destroyed. Energy exists in many forms: kinetic (moving energy), potential (storing energy), elastic (stretching energy), chemical (reaction energy), radiant (light energy), and thermal (temperature energy). Energy stays constant overall as it is transferred from one form to another.


Work is the result that takes place when a force is applied to an object to move the object. It can be measured by multiplying the force by the distance. Work is closely related to energy. The concept referred to as work-energy principle states that an increase in kinetic energy of an object is due to an equal amount of work performed on the object. The unit of work is the joule (J) which equals a newton-meter (N-m).


Fluids are one of the phases of matter that deform due to the application of pressure or stress. This capability allows fluids to travel through different channels in the body to carry substances such as oxygen, cells, wastes, antibodies, and medicines. Fluids flow according to Bernoulli’s principle, which states that fluids increase their speeds as pressure decreases or the fluid’s potential energy decreases.


Gases are one of the phases of matter where the particles are vastly separated unlike what takes place in solids and liquids where particles are closer together. Gases are hard to observe so they are classified according to temperature, number of particles, pressure, and volume.

Gases have low density and viscosity compared to other states of matter. Two laws explain their properties. Boyle’s law states that at a constant temperature, the pressure of the gas varies inversely with its volume. Charles’s law states that at a constant pressure, the volume of the gas is directly proportional to its temperature. These laws explain the movement of gases in different body compartments.

Periodic motion

Periodic motion is motion that occurs in equal intervals of time. It can be seen in a rocking chair, in a swing in motion, in a planet orbiting the sun, a vibrating tuning fork, and a water wave. The period is the interval of time for the cycle to take place. It can be explained by the term frequency, which refers to the number of periods per time unit.


Electricity is associated with the existence of an electrical charge dependent on the number of electrons, the negative particle in an atom. When the electrical charges are not moving, it is referred to as static electricity. If electrons are moving, it is referred to as dynamic electricity.

In the human body, different ions (positively or negatively charged substances) can move based on electrical differences that exist across membranes. This allows for transportation of substances and conduction of impulses needed for nerve and muscle transmission.


Magnetism is the physical action that takes place arising from the force caused by magnets (objects that generate fields that attract or repel other objects). The particles that undergo this effect are electrically charged particles. The force that is created depends on the charge magnitude, the particle velocity, and the magnetic field strength. The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) generates pictures of the anatomy and physiology of the body using magnetic fields.


A circuit is a closed loop through which charges can continuously move. For instance, when you turn on the light switch, the light turns on. The switch is acting to close the circuit allowing electrons to move and be transformed into light energy. When the circuit is closed, the electron motion is referred to as the current of the circuit. The human body has many circuits where electrical activity generates physiologic activity associated with nerve transmission and muscle contraction.


A wave is a disturbance that travels through a medium from one place to another place. What is a medium? A medium is the substance that carries the wave. In a pond that is undisturbed, the water is quiet in its resting position with a smooth surface. When a rock is dropped, a disturbance is generated. The change that occurs from the rock causes a fluctuation in the water which is transmitted as a wave that travels either to the shore or disperses over time. In the body, fluid travels in channels with a wave effect.


Light is electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation is the flow of energy through space and a material medium in form of electric and magnetic fields. The elementary particle of light is a photon. Visible light reaches the visual layer of the eye whereby it is converted to chemical energy and transmitted to the brain via nerve impulses. The brain reforms the image allowing sight.


Sound is a pressure or mechanical wave that is formed by the back and forth vibration of particles. The wave leaves the source in all directions and can be sensed by sensors. In humans, the sound waves are captured by the ear and transmitted into the ear canal creating vibratory motion of the middle ear bones. The waves that are generated by vibration are longitudinal waves.


An atom is the smallest particle into which an element can be divided without losing its chemical identity. An atom is made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The central nucleus is made up of the neutrally charged neutrons and the positively charged protons. The negatively charged electrons exist as a cloud orbiting the nucleus. The electron configuration and number determine the ability for elements to bond creating chemical reactions.

Electronic structure

The electronic structure or configuration is the arrangement of electrons in energy levels around the central nucleus in an atom. The levels are different orbits in which the electrons exist. The electrons fill the orbits closer to the nucleus and depending on the element, extend the orbitals outward. The ability for elements to bind is based on the status of the outer electron shell.


Thermodynamics is associated with heat and temperature and their association to energy and work. Various laws exist that define these relationships.

The first law states that the internal energy of an isolated system is constant. An isolated system does not exchange heat, work, or matter with the surroundings.

The second law states that heat cannot spontaneously flow from a colder location to a hotter location.

The third law states that all processes cease as a system approaches absolute zero.


Thermochemistry deals with the energy and heat and their association with chemical relations and physical transformations. Reactions can either absorb or release energy. It also explains what occurs during phase changes, such as melting and boiling. The human body performs chemical reactions, which are classified as endothermic and exothermic. Endothermic reactions absorb heat whereas exothermic reactions release heat. 

Tools & Skills for Quantitative Thinking

Many tools and skills exist that transform the concepts to physics into numerical data. These tools provide the ability to make proper comparative calculations. They make sure that we are not comparing apples to oranges but apples to apples. In addition, the tools help perform calculations using quicker math techniques. The three methods that allow for this transformation is scientific notation, unit analysis, and proportionality.

Scientific notation

Scientific notation is the method utilized to handle either very large numbers or very small numbers. It makes calculations much easier by using exponents. In any particular number, there are two parts. The actual number itself and the number of places the number is shifted to the right or to the left of the decimal point.

Scientific notation examples

  • The first example is a large number: 1,200,000,000. The digit term in this number would be 1.2. Then we look at how many places the number is shifted from the decimal point. To get from 1.2 to 1,200,000,000 the decimal point is shifted 9 places to the right. This indicates the need of an exponential term: 109.
    The number 9 (the exponent of 10) is the number of places the decimal point needs to be shifted. The positive exponent shows that the decimal point is shifted that number of places to the right. So, 1,200,000,000 can be written as 1.2×109.
  • The second example is a small number: 0.00000012. The digit term in this number would also be 1.2. Then we look at how many places the number is shifted from the decimal point. To get from 1.2 to 0.00000012, the decimal point is shifted 7 places to the left. This indicates the need of an exponential term: 10-7.
    The number 7 (the exponent of 10) is the number of places the decimal point needs to be shifted. The negative exponent shows that the decimal point is shifted that number of places to the left. So, 0.00000012 can be written as 1.2×10-7.
Prefix Amount Symbol
Smaller than 1.0
pico 10-12 p
nano 10-9 n
micro 10-6 μ
milli 10-3 m
centi 10-2 c
deci 10-1 d
Greater than 1.0
Kilo 103 k
Mega 106 M
Giga 109 G
Tera 1012 T

Unit analysis

Unit analysis is the analysis of the relationship between different physical properties by identifying their fundamental dimensions and units of measure. In addition, these properties are monitored as calculations and comparisons are performed. In order to determine the distance an object moves from rest if it is moving at a constant acceleration, the following relationship is used:

x = ½ a t2

(x = distance, a = acceleration, t = time)

In calculating the distance, ½ is multiplied by acceleration and time squared. To make sure the right answer is calculated, the units must also match. Acceleration is in (meters/second)/second. Time is in seconds. Distance is in meters.

meters = (meters / second2)/(second2)

The second2 can be cancelled out and the answer on each side of the equals sign is meters = meters. If the equation was written incorrectly, the units would not have matched. This would be a trigger to realize the calculation was incorrect since the wrong relationship was used.


Proportionality is the relationship between two quantities where they decrease or increase at the same rate. Proportionality can exist in many different relationships. A direct relationship implies that if one factor changes, the measured factor changes in the same proportion. An inverse relationship implies that if one factor changes, the measured factor will change in the opposite direction. Some of the relationships in physics will apply multiple proportionalities.

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